Thursday, February 15, 2007

Take-Home Exams

As mid-terms roll around for first-year students and for those upper-division students in two-topic courses that divide the semester into two exams, I am reminded of the perils of take-home exams.  Students often make flawed assumptions about take-home exams. 

Some students assume that these exams will be easier because they are given more time usually to take the exams - many times an entire weekend.  However, professors write take-home exams that are just as hard as in-class exams.  And, they sometimes have higher expectations if students have been given especially long time blocks to take the exam.

Other students assume that they do not really have to study because many of these exams are also open book.  However, going into any exam without serious studying is a recipe for poor performance since all exams require deep understanding of the material, the ability to apply the material to new facts, and precise use of the law and policy for the course. 

Some students worry to death about the fact that other students in the class may have more time to do well because those students do not have the same work load over the testing period given for the exam.  Take-home exams are written with the premise that all students have been learning the material throughout the semester.  If a student has been diligent all semester, the work load over one testing period should not matter.  Besides a student can only do her best.  Worrying about the competition undermines that ability.

Take-home exams can be disastrous for students unless they make wise choices as to time management, strategies, and techniques.  Some suggestions that I offer to my students are as follows:

  • Make sure that the instructions are fully understood.  How many hours or days are given for completion of the exam?  What page limits or format requirements apply?  When and where must the exam be picked up and turned in?  What materials, if any, can be referred to during the exam?
  • Study for a take-home exam as one would for a comparable in-class exam.  If it is closed book, then condense the course outline and work on memory and relationships of concepts well before the actual starting time for the exam.  If it is open book exam, do not decide to do any studying of the material while taking the exam.  Study as if it will be closed book exam so that time is not wasted time looking everything up during the taking of the exam.
  • Use the format and page limits that the professor requires.  Do not be so foolish as to decide that one can ignore the professor's instructions to write an office memorandum or letter to the client.  Page or word limits are real because many professors will not read one more word than the instructions indicated.
  • Make a time chart for the exam that matches the time given.  For example, if the time period is 48 hours for the exam, subtract out time to sleep, eat, take breaks etc.  If the time is 8 hours, subtract out less break or meal time.  Divide the remaining time proportionately among the questions based on points or suggested times made by the professor.  Finally, if the exam is an essay one, divide the time for each question into 1/3 for reading the question, analyzing, and outlining an answer and 2/3 for writing and editing the answer.  Some good typists can use a 1/2 to 1/2 formula instead.  (If an exam is for shorter periods of time, such as 3 or 4 hours, work straight through and still use the 1/3 - 2/3 or 1/2 - 1/2 formula.)
  • If a long time is given to do an exam (12 or more hours for what is in effect a 4-hour exam), read through the entire exam as soon as one is permitted to look at it.  This way, one can begin to think about the questions and how to approach and organize the material before actually sit down to work in earnest.
  • Use "bursts" and "breaks" if one has a long time period to complete the exam.  Work with an intense focus for 60 - 90 minutes.  Then take a short 5- or 10-minute break.  Then do another burst of intense work.  Continue this pattern.
  • Beware procrastination.  Assume that study preparation is going to take longer than expected.  Once the exam is started, do not delay even though tasks might be spread over several days.  Avoid the "I have all day" philosophy.  Realize that the goal is to finish the exam before the end of the "clock" so that there is time to review and edit as necessary.  Also, by not delaying, an excellent product is still possible even if illness, a family emergency, or other mishap intervenes.
  • Beware perfectionism.  Set a strict time limit on studying for the exam so that going overboard and losing valuable exam writing time do not result.  Do not over-outline or over-write answers because this is an exam, not the Nobel Prize for literature.  Do not delay the actual writing of the exam once the outline for an answer is completed.  One can broaden the analysis, include more detail, and edit as needed.
  • Stock up on ink cartridges, paper, food, beverages, and other necessities before starting.  Do not allow concentration to be shattered or time wasted by these items that could be planned for and acquired before starting the exam.
  • If writer's block occurs, take scrap paper and write anything: stream of consciousness, fuzzy ideas, or the errand list for the week.  Just start writing to help unblock the process.  Once focus is regained, move on to the actual exam.

Students tend to either love or loath take-home exams.  By using these simple strategies, all students can feel more secure in their performance on take-home exams.  (alj)      

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