Rethinking our exam period

As we reach the end of the Fall term, and most of us have been or still are busy trying to complete our Fall term exam marking and final grades, you might not have time to reflect on this, but perhaps you might over the well-deserved holiday break.

The figure below shows the examination period for all Maclean’s ranked Ontario universities and their final exam period duration. You will recognize Ontario Tech University as the outlier at the bottom with only a 10-day examination period.

Figure 1: Histogram of exam period durations in days, Ontario Tech in orange

Pressure on Students

The University community knows that the exam period is a stressful time for all involved and we are all too willing to come up with de-stresser events such as handing out self-care kits, etc. These are not bad initiatives but an extension of the exam period would not only bring us in line with other institutions in the province, but also provide genuine much-needed relief to our students.

Pressure on Instructors

In addition to this short examination period, Ontario Tech also has the second shortest time period to submit final grades. This challenge is off loaded onto the instructors for the stated benefit to students, of reducing student stress and uncertainty during the holiday break.

Students and Professors need more time, not less

It now seems as though the administration is considering changing the standard exam duration from three-hours to two-hours in length, in order to fit exams into a fewer number of days. The rationale for this has not yet been made broadly apparent, but the past suggests the motivation.

A few years ago we switched to a 12-week term from the old 13-week term. Several rationales were put forward for this, including allowing for the possible introduction of a Fall term reading week – which happened first as a couple of “co-curricular days” and this year as a full reading week that includes the Thanksgiving Monday holiday – in order to reduce student stress. One other issue that the 12-week term was meant to address was that once every few years the term starts late – because of when Labour Day lands on the calendar – and based on the 13-week term, examination period and final grades policy meant that the grades would be released after the holiday closure that starts on December 25th, i.e. in January.

It is very interesting that this possible change in exam duration is coming when next year is the latest possible start to the term – Labour Day 2020 is September 7th. Are we seriously considering a major academic change to our examination policy for this reason, when many other Ontario universities have long accepted that students can wait until January for their final grades and most allow at least a full week for instructors to submit their final grades?

5 comments

  • First, the graphic is misleading. Since the x-axis starts at 9 instead of zero, it given the impression that Laurentian has about 8 times as many days as we do. If set at zero, we would have”
    Laurentian
    XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    OT
    XXXXXXXXX
    Still bad, nearly twice as many days (and the bar is almost twice as long. The extra two days at four other universities would yield bars that appropriately look a little longer than ours.

    As I recall, the reason for wanting marks out before mid January is not just to get marks out to our students sooner, it is to reduce the difficulties that arise when students enroll in courses that have prerequisites, but they failed those prerequisite courses in the fall. This is less of an issue in which courses are offered on a full year basis, but our single term courses are better adapted to the need for a large number of courses, e.g., in engineering.

    I see no reason for assuming that a three hour exam is needed for all courses. Perhaps a more flexible system that asked the faculty to request one, two or three hours for their exams would let us make better use of time. I believe the three hour exam is also a holdover from the days of two-semester long courses.

    Some of those other Ontario universities schedule some online exams–that would not reduce the need for times slots, but it might free up testing space.

    Have students complained? Have faculty complained? Has the registrar’s office complained? Student services? Is this an “if it ain’t broke…” situation? I do not object to adding a day or two to the schedule if there is a demonstrable need to do so. The argument presented in “Rethinking our Exam Schedule” has not made a convincing case.

    Lastly, does saying that you will not be printing my email address mean that you WILL be printing my name? You are welcome to print either or both, but I imagine faculty would be more interested in knowing what WILL be printed than what won’t.

  • I would suggest that final exams are not necessary. Faculty need to consider alternative assessments and use of technology to assist in assessing whether students have met the course learning objectives or not.

    • To say that they are not necessay has to be understood as “in all courses.” We need to respect the individual faculty members judgement and the role of deans and faculties in making such decisions. That said, I have been teaching only grad courses for some time and I haven’t given a final exam for years.

  • Wow, I knew our timelines were short, but not that short! I certainly know I feel pressure in grading assignments at this time of year, but our students often have to complete 5 exams in 10 days.!!! Jimminey Cricket! If students want change, maybe this is the time to take this issue to OTSU, the student union. Maybe together we can let the university know we would like to have less stress at this time of year and come in line with other universities when it comes to exams. Convenience and “doing things because we have always done it this way,” is never a good reason to do anything. I suspect it is time to re-examine these policies. Thanks for letting us know. A picture really is worth a 1000 words! Thanks again.

  • My original comment here had a typo
    The first line should have read “First, the graphic is misleading. Since the x-axis starts at 9 instead of zero, it gives the impression… ” Not “…given the impression.”
    There is also a missing end parenthesis on line 7; it should be: (and the bar is almost twice as long).
    And there are end quotes befor my little graph instead of a colon.

    Sorry for all of that, but real reason for THIS comment is that I have created a version of the graphic that has zero as the base line on the x axis. I suppose some folks might have difficulty imagining what a difference this makes. Regrettably, this comments section will not accept a graphic, but I am sending one to UOITFA (OTUFA?) in case there is inters.

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