Last week, the Committee on Undergraduate Education met to discuss possibilities for restructuring academics at Harvard. One of the issues discussed was a proposal to extend the number of times classes might meet by decreasing the length of finals week. This would be done by holding evening exams in addition to the current morning and afternoon exams. We firmly believe that a change of this type to the final exam calendar would be unproductive, as well as destructive to students’ mental health and academic achievement.
The current final exam schedule includes a morning and afternoon exam each day for eight days of final exam period. Although some students do occasionally take two exams on the same day, it is generally rare for students to have two exams or more in a row. This new proposal, set forward by Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris, would condense final exam period into six days; however, it would also add a third, “evening” exam slot.
Currently, final exams take place either from 9 A.M. to 12 P.M. or 2 P.M. to 5 P.M. We expect that an evening exam could take place from 7 P.M. to 10 P.M., in order to give students sitting both afternoon and evening exams the chance to eat dinner.
We are very concerned about the effect this exam schedule would have on students who already become considerably stressed during the current exam schedule. Although no one would be required to take three exams in one day, more students would face two exams in the same day, and some students could seemingly be required to take one exam that ended at 10 P.M. and another that started at 9 A.M., leaving them very little time to sleep, eat, and study in between exams.
Administrators and professors who support the plan suggest that it would allow classes that are already compressed at the end of fall semester to meet for two extra days. While the revised academic schedule introduced in 2009-10 has indeed placed worrisome constraints on class time, two extra days of lecture will not reasonably be of great significance to a student’s academic experience. Thursday and Friday seminars that, because of the current schedule, meet for one fewer session than Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday seminars, do generally make up a last class during reading period anyway. In any case, these concerns are not sufficient to justify a change in the final exam calendar that would have a large adverse affect on student life.
More to the point, the major issue with the proposed restructuring is potentially increased student stress. As final exam scores account for a huge percentage of many students’ grades, even those who have diligently kept up with every reading assignment and problem set all semester will desire many hours to study and prepare for their final exams. Furthermore, like it or not, Harvard students are not always perfect about planning out their exam studying weeks ahead of time. Packing more final exams into a shorter amount of time will give students less time to do necessary preparation, thus leading to unnecessary pressure and anxiety. We do not think it unreasonable to fear that the stress resulting from such a schedule would contribute to the sleep deprivation and mental health issues that consistently plague Harvard students in an intense academic environment. These problems would probably also affect students studying the sciences and mathematics disproportionately, as many humanities and social science classes require final papers instead of final exams.
Some might suggest that waiting almost an entire week from the end of reading period to take one final exam is unnecessary, inefficient, or boring. But when it comes to academic preparation, extra time is almost always better than not enough time. Packing final exams into six days instead of eight would not add nearly enough to make evening exams worth their potential stress.