Examinations have an awkward tendency to interfere with the steady tenor of college existence. In place of placid efforts to keep up with the slow moving body of courses, there is a feverish spirit of review, rapid reenactment of the term's accumulated knowledge.
And all this activity finds but a short three hour culmination. For the interval between a leisurely breakfast and a prompt, luncheon, the student is something of an authority on his subject. He is able for one whole morning to command a set of facts with a reasonable precision. And if the instructor selected the questions shrewdly, the student may even be forced to some constructive thinking. Too often, however, the net result of the three hour ordeal is a series of ill-assorted facts set forth in hastily garbled English.
The blame for this uninspiring denouement may lie with the student who prepared his work poorly or it may be laid to the essentially unimaginative character of examinations. Any set of questions to be answered within a short time tend to put a premium either on uninspired mimicry or a certain superficial facility with pen and mind.
Many professors, indeed, admit the defliciencies of tests. The difficulty is to find a substitute medium for translating intelligence and industry into the official alphabet. And in determining grades it would seem necessary always to place some reliance upon examinations. But this necessity should by no means prove a barrier to other forms of cultural inquisition.
In particular more use might be made of theses, long reports calculated to test undergraduate grasp of particular problems. The conditions under which a thesis is written, sufficiency of time and availability of reference material, are ideal for the production of an adequate piece of work. The report of substantial length furnishes what the examination often lacks: an opportunity for original thinking. Already, candidates for distinction are required to submit a capable thesis before receiving their honors. And the research methods of graduate work are simply an elaboration of the same system.
The replacement of ubiquitous hour examinations by theses whenever appropriate would certainly add to the total of a student's understanding. And by giving these reports equal weight with the three-hour final test, grades might more closely approximate to actual ability.