By Mira Sucharov, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science
I have mixed memories of final exams as an undergraduate. There was anxiety around memorizing the material, of course; there was camaraderie in forming late-night study groups; there was satisfaction in nailing an answer; there was relief after walking out of the examination room. Now, as a professor, I have chosen to forego exams altogether. It’s not specifically to save my students stress — all assignments naturally have their own stressful elements— but rather to protect the classroom environment as a learning space.
Giving up exams in my courses has meant liberating myself from the feeling that I must present a litany of facts and figures which my students will dutifully write down for the purposes of…reproducing said facts and figures on the exam. It also means that I have jettisoned my PowerPoint presentations, since I had also designed those around the expectation that I must supply detailed material which students will later reproduce (I admit that the “death by PowerPoint” comment I once received on a course evaluation humbled me).
But most importantly, not holding exams has meant that my classroom space is now one of active inquiry. “Course material” is provided through weekly readings; students come to class prepared to be engaged in a guided conversation. Neither are we bound to unquestioningly follow the readings. If our conversation takes us in another direction as a result of me prompting students to pose questions that they extract from the week’s themes, we go with it. (To ensure that there is sufficient incentive for students to complete the readings and to attend class, I award a grade for attendance and for the submission of weekly analytical reading write-ups).
There are some risks to creating a less-structured class environment than one that has been tightly scripted from detailed lecture notes. Students can raise tough questions; a less relevant tangent might be followed. But there are also rich rewards. Students look at me and at each other rather than at their notebooks. We get to chart the how-to-answer-a-question journey so integral to higher order learning as much as identifying the hard and fast answers. We have created a learning community together, one which I get to be a part of too.