Under Examination

Last spring, for all the usual reasons, I sicked out of a final exam. I inferred from my acting senior tutor that I would get a letter specifying the time and place of my make-up exam and I spent the first few weeks of the semester unconcerned. After a few weeks more I put "Call the Registrar's Office" on my list of things to do and promptly forgot about it.

Ten days ago, a friend told me that everyone else she knew was taking their make-up exams that week. I called the Registrar's Office and was transferred three times. The man I finally talked to said, "Yep, they're all this week. You know, you're pretty lucky--your exam isn't until tomorrow afternoon." It was then 4:30 p.m. "Lucky" was not the word I would have used.

While I was having a stroke, the man from the Registrar's Office explained that "there was a list of all the times and places in your registration packet. You probably just missed it." I knew I hadn't missed it because I am the sort of anal-retentive person who goes through everything in her registration packet and even reads the drug and alcohol policy before signing it.

He kept saying, "It was in your packet," and we continued in this kindergarten manner for a while before he decided to check some list. (I heard paper rustling.) My name was on the list, he announced smugly. Therefore I had received it. I asked if it were possible that the omnipotent Registrar's Office, long may it spew red tape, had actually made a mistake? (That's not exactly what I said, but I wish I had.) He then retreated to his second line of defense. It didn't matter anyway since it was my responsibility to find out these things, not the responsibility of the Registrar's Office.

This turned out to be true. The Handbook for Students does indeed put the onus on the students. (You just knew there was fine print involved somewhere, didn't you?) I was not however, "the only person out of 170" to "miss" the make-up information, as the man from the Registrar's Office claimed. I found out later that several other people were similarly screwed.


To be honest, 10 days later, my outrage has faded somewhat. I studied for 20 hours straight and took the exam. I may even have done well. Ten days later, it's just one more story to tell about the Registrar's Office. It has, however, made me consider earlier than I normally do the awkward, Byzantine way that Harvard examinations are held.

This is hardly a new issue. Every semester at finals time a few more students ask why Harvard doesn't operate on a honors system similar to Haverford's. The request most often made is "why can't we all just go pick up our tests whenever we want and return them when we're done?" This, in essence, is how Haverford operates. Students are on their honor to work on their exams only for the set period of time using only the materials allowed.

This proposal--and others like it--typically sends the Registrar's Office (understandably stressed around finals period anyway) into hysterics. They warn of the extra staff who would be needed to keep track of all these exams and the potential chaos at the end of finals period when some instructors might have to grade 100 exams in two days.

There are other objections to a straight honors system. Many worry about the potential for abusing the system and the effect it would have on a grade curve. Some students worry about not having a T.F. nearby to explain exam questions. The arguments rarely move beyond this sort of polarized thinking, and by the end of finals, everyone's too exhausted to worry about it.

This is a problem that needs some creative long-term thinking. It's clear that the current system has few virtues beyond being the devil we know. Students with religious conflicts must make arrangements to take their finals a day later. A 24-hour bout of the flu may force a five-month postponement of an exam. Some students have four finals in three days; others have an exam on the first and last days and nothing in between.

Harvard needs to experiment with change. I offer this plan to revise the way Harvard gives final exams:

Keep the current method of assigning classes to exam times. Divide each week of final exams into two groups--Monday to Wednesday and Thursday to Saturday--maintaining the distinction between morning and afternoon exams. Reserve one room for three days and then assign three classes to that room.

This is not as complicated as it sounds--many such groups would come naturally. There are usually classes taking exams in the Science Center, for example, every day of exam period. Simply mesh the three classes already assigned to the same time and space.

Students would be able to take their exams any of the three days, but at a specific time and place. Each instructor would drop off examinations at the beginning of the time period, and pick them up at the end.

Students would not be allowed to take the exam questions home until the last day. Teaching fellows could be present throughout the first day of exams, when they could debug confusing questions. On the other two days, they could inform students of any problems at the start of the period. Their presence throughout the first exam would also provide some incentive for students to take the exam on the first day.

This is not a perfect system. A few students could wind up in all three classes that are grouped together and thus only gain the flexibility of choosing in which order to take them. Some professors would be understandably concerned about the possibility of cheating.

It is possible to get around this without creating a different test for each day. Most exams are divided into sections. Create three versions of one or two sections and alternate them each day. If students know this in advance, they will be less likely to follow a friend's advice on what to study.

It's also worth noting that none of this need start on a grand scale. The Registrar's Officer often complains that people underestimate the amount of work such a change would take. Begin experimenting and prove that charge true or false. In all of Harvard there must surely be three instructors willing to try something new.