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Play It Again

Brass Tacks

By Jerald R. Gerst

THERE WERE some people inconvenienced recently by the Administrative Board. The Ad Board disallowed their petitions for make-up exams. For some (including the author), the Board's decision was merely an inconvenience. For others, the decision probably constitutes a major academic disaster.

And there really is no reason for it. Oh, as long as the rules demand a "good excuse" for being absent from an exam, the Ad Board must enforce them. But that particular set of rules is of dubious value.

Threatening to punish us if we don't take our exams smacks of paternalism that is, or should be, anachronistic. Prohibiting indiscriminate exam make-ups was probably of value when Harvard College was devoted to squeezing the rudiments of a liberal arts education into the minds of the sons of alumni, before they went off to law school, medical school, or were absorbed into papa's firm. Harvard students then, if given responsibility to decide whether to take an exam when regularly scheduled or instead to take it the following make-up period, might have dug themselves into impossibly deep holes.

What the Administration probably fears in such a reform is that half the College--or all of it--would decide to take one or more make-ups. But Harvard is no longer a haven for the dilletante sons of the idle rich (our dilletantes are middle class). Most of us are fairly highly motivated. It would do no real harm to permit a student to take one or two make-up exams per term simply because he wanted to, offering no more elaborate excuse than that he was not prepared for the exam.

If you allow the premise that most of us are really interested in getting a decent education, and that we will, in the long run, be fairly prudent in doing so, it seems likely that we will take out exams on schedule. Most of use realize the disadvantages of postponing an exam and will be reluctant to do so unless it is truly necessary. For the rest, the experience of two make-ups in April will be enough to bring those disadvantages home.

On the other hand, it might be advantageous in some courses to take the examination several months after the course has finished. A Math 105 instructor once told his section that he would like to give the exam in the course at the end of the following semester, or even a year later. It took, he thought, that long for your mind to digest the material and accept, on the level of faith, the concepts he was trying to put across. The same is true of other courses, and the student should have the right to adjust his test-taking.

Giving make-up exams to a substantial proportion of the College would of course involve additional expense, but it would not be exorbitant. A more serious problem would be to find while the term is in session enough rooms to use for test-taking. But one could give everyone not taking a make-up a mid-semester reading period. Some professors would be inconvenienced by having to write an additional exam, but the inconvenience is more than counterbalanced by the greater freedom offered students.

For most students, simply knowing they will not be forced to take an exam if they are not ready will take enough pressure off their work to allow them to study more calmly, and more effectively. Permitting optional make-ups will add only slightly to the number of students delaying their exams, yet will let many more students go into an examination room satisfied that they are adeqately prepared.

Perhaps we are not expected to feel satisfied taking an exam, but a little such satisfaction would make examinations much more an integral part of the learning process at Harvard, instead of a ritualistic postscript to it.

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