For Some, Final Free Exam Period

A lucky few students relax during January with an exam-free finals period

For most Harvard students, intersession has already begun: their remaining responsibilities include planning vacations and gloating to unlucky roommates with dreaded Monday and Tuesday exams.

But a fortunate few have been laughing for some time now—students who, through a combination of term papers and December exams, have gone through January fully final-free.

Thanks to serendipitous scheduling last winter, Amy C. Stebbins ’07, a History and Literature concentrator, finished all five of her courses without sitting for a single final exam, ending up with perhaps the longest intersession of any student.

The combination of her arts, humanities, and language courses—and the fact that she spent the following spring studying in Berlin—meant she did not have any coursework from early January until March.

“[I] finally had a moment to sit down with my friends and have some meaningful conversations that weren’t predetermined by a syllabus,” Stebbins wrote in an e-mail. “It was a breath of fresh air, to be able to enjoy the company afforded here without the standard stress.”

But students without January exams do not necessarily get off scot-free. Lengthy term papers are often the price of having no finals, as Geoff S. Johnston ’07 learned.

Johnston said that despite having no final exams, his five papers—all due during a three-day period and totalling between 75 and 90 pages together—led to “by far my most stressful final period.”

“I think it’s important to have a mixture of final exams and papers,” said Johnston, who like Stebbins, is a History and Literature concentrator.

“It’s good to spread it out. Or at least not have to write five papers. That was a little too much,” he said.

Whether a student has a final exam is often a function of the discipline as well as the professor’s personal preferences.

Humanities and social science courses, however, are more likely than others to require only a final paper rather than an exam.

According to Bret J. Benesh, a preceptor for Mathematics 1a, “Introduction to Calculus,” said it would be hard to ask students to write a final paper rather than take an exam in math.

“A lot of people [view] math as a series of facts to be learned” and therefore would consider a paper about math “silly...because it wouldn’t be very deep,” he said.

And he said that moving the final exam in Calculus 1a to before winter break presents logistical difficulties.

“We would have to restructure a lot of calculus sections if we wanted to end earlier in the semester,” Benesh said. Certain topics would have to be left out, which would affect what must be taught in higher level calculus classes.

Kenneth Maxwell, a visiting professor of history, said he offered the final exam for his course, History 1757, “History of Latin America to 1825, ” before December because it worked better with the class’ schedule.

It was a “good fit with the number of students I have and the type of course I teach,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Though Maxwell said he is unsure if there is an increasing trend towards earlier finals, he would support such a move.

“It would be much healthier for everyone to have a sensible winter break and a sensible time!” he wrote.

—Staff writer Van Le can be reached at