Before I came to Canada in 1993 to earn my PhD at the University of British Columbia, I had never even heard of the concept of “cramming.” I had spent eight years at the University of Vienna, had completed 52 courses, had researched and written a master’s thesis, and yet had never prepared for an exam by hurriedly ingesting large amounts of information that would be frantically regurgitated at exam time. Nor did I know anyone who did. (To be fair, I am a classically trained zoologist, and I know nobody who studied zoology and was not interested in it. We were lucky.)
In Canada, it didn’t take me long to find potential causes for this misguided habit in university students: constant low-value busywork that doesn’t leave time for thinking, let alone an appreciation for thinking; constant micro-testing that gives the impression that every substantial portion of understanding can be hacked into a minimum testable bit; an obsession with marks that places what is regurgitated above what is digested; and, of course, exam scheduling.
There are 12 months in a year and yet in each semester the final exams of all university courses are scheduled in a two-week window as early as two days after the last day of class. As a consequence, students experience:
- Scheduling conflicts with other exams
- High levels of stress and anxiety, increasing demand for counselling services and prescription drugs
- Confusion, increasing demand for faculty office hours, remedial services and tutoring sessions
- Cramming sessions and all-nighters, increasing demand for prescription and illegal drugs that boost concentration and stamina
- Content ingestion, regurgitation, and forgetting, rather than building understanding
- Intellectual disengagement during the downtime after exam periods
- Frustration when forced to repeat a failed course, increasing demand for extra sections and/or the length of wait lists
This raises for me three mysteries. First, why are final exams scheduled that way? Certainly not to help students excel in their academic studies, nor to minimize stress and anxiety, and certainly not because professors enjoy spending days on end marking piles of exam papers. Why then?
Second, why do universities spend extraordinary resources on managing student mental health (e.g. mental health task forces, campaigns, counsellors, comfort dogs), yet fail to see final exam scheduling as a major cause for student mental health problems?
And third, why do students not protest en masse against this asinine practice of final exam scheduling? If students were as serious about their education as they are about more social demands, it is conceivable that administrators would move quickly on this most universally distressing ritual in university life.
As a first and embarrassingly small step towards a sensible testing system, I suggest that university administrations offer at least two final exam dates for each course (e.g. one at the end of the semester and one at the beginning of the next). Of course, the first and second (and subsequent) tests would need to be different from each other. Having multiple dates should ease if not end many of the negative effects of the current system as listed above.
Remember that the proximate goal of education is knowledge retention and knowledge transfer. That is what we want to test in a way that is valid, reliable and standardized. Nowhere is there an intrinsic necessity that knowledge acquisition and testing must be closely sequentially coupled. Dates mean nothing. This is not a radical model; it is routine practice at many European universities.
It is time for Canadian universities to remove institutional crutches and barriers that stand in the way of academic and postgraduate excellence. There are many more to clear, but final exam scheduling is an easy one.
Michael Baumann is a mid-level bureaucrat at one of Canada’s universities.