The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

OPINION | Exams? Papers? Presentations? Which is Best for a Final?

Willa Wang
Some teachers require students to memorize course content for in-class exams, while others ask students to synthesize material at home.

The snow is flying, the weather is freezing, and the final week is approaching.

During the last week of this semester, a history student had just finished his first complete draft of one chapter from his honor thesis. While waiting for his professor’s feedback, the student was preparing a group presentation for his Sensory Biology class, planning a revision session with his classmates for his Japanese Horror Film final take-home exam, and submitting his final draft of his Education Capstone. He planned to finish all the deadlines before the end of next week so he could enjoy the break one week earlier.

According to the student’s to-do list, we can see that Bates’ curriculum usually assesses students’ academic abilities through three types of assignments: exams, papers, and presentations. However, depending on different fields of study, the format of the assignments also varies. A history course might only have papers throughout the semester, while a mathematics course may use exams and quizzes to test students’ abilities. Why do different courses have different formats of assignments? What kind of courses do these three formats fit respectively? I will discuss these two questions based on my experiences as a history major in the past three and a half years.

Exams are the most universal format of assignments in 100 and 200-level courses. Depending on the course, exams are also categorized as open-book (take-home) or closed-book (in-class). Open-book exams are standard in social science courses, such as History and Asian Studies. The Japanese Horror Film course, which I am taking this semester, has a take-home exam for both the Midterm and coming Final, and sometimes 100-level Scientific Reasoning (SR) courses also give students the option to do open-book exams. This kind of exam usually allows students to use sources from the course only. Open-book exams were usually assigned when texts and key points from the class were abundant and could not be simply memorized or recited (e.g., the impact of a historical event or comparing and contrasting two concepts).

An open-book exam primarily assesses students’ understanding and comprehension of complex knowledge rather than testing whether students completely memorized it. In-class (closed book) exams are the most usual form of assignment among many fields of study. It usually requires students to put more effort into reviewing almost everything they have learned from the class because anything in the class content will become the question in the exam. For natural science and mathematics courses, in-class exams are a universal way to test how much students have learned in class and how much they understand. These courses usually have quantitative knowledge that can be memorized.

Compared to papers, presentations, and even take-home exams, in-class exams only offer students a single opportunity, meaning that your performance during the exam will affect your grade. However, some social studies and even history courses also offer in-class exams. For example, I took the course Medieval Worlds, in which the final exam was an in-class writing essay asking us to respond to specific questions. Still, the professor had already posted the exam questions one week ago. In other words, I could write an essay to respond to this question before the exam, and I needed to memorize the main argument of it. Thus, for social science and history courses, an in-class exam will be more acceptable by students if the professor could provide a range of questions before the actual exam.

History and other social sciences courses mostly expect students to understand the logic and relationships between different events or concepts. Students will definitely have different opinions and need more time to develop an argument. In-class examinations give students limited time and might not be enough to cover students’ thinking and writing process of creating an argument, use of evidence, and analysis. Plus, students may feel intense stress due to the lack of time to structure an essay as the form of an in-class exam. The course Medieval Worlds is a typical example for students to have a clear goal of revision before the examination. Among the abundant knowledge that requires deep understanding, identifying the range of examinations will encourage students to review what they’ve learned in class as well as how they understand knowledge they learned.

Most of my peers told me that writing papers is less stressful than preparing for exams because they will have long periods of completing the paper and never feel intense stress. But does writing a paper have less pressure than the exam? This question varies between students concentrating on different subjects and their study habits. As a history student, I prefer analyzing different sources and coming up with arguments to explain history in my opinions. To establish my papers, I need to read through all sources that will support my argument. I usually start structuring my papers as soon as the assignment is posted and manage my daily amount of writing. For example, I wrote one page per day for one of my senior thesis chapter semesters, and I finished my complete drafts within two months. I still have sufficient time to revise and go even further.

Compared with preparing for an exam, which needs a shorter time for a general and robust review, writing a paper is a long timeline from research, structuring, analyzing, and reframing. Time management skills are more important in writing a paper. Compared with take-home exams, writing a paper requires a deeper analysis and might need further research. Therefore, higher level social studies courses (200 level and above) usually offer papers as the most or the only assignment throughout a semester because the 200 level usually requires students to have the ability to do independent research and make an argument for writing an essay. However, in a general view of college studies, formal academic writing is always necessary for students to develop academic skills and an understanding of knowledge. While examinations are the primary form of assessing students’ understanding of learning knowledge, papers are the standard for integrating and analyzing knowledge.

Presentations are relatively rare compared to papers and examinations, but most people believe that presentation is the least stressful work. Whether in a group or an individual presentation, students are training their oral expression of knowledge. Group presentations also help students practice collaboration and interpersonal skills. But sometimes not every member in a group is equally responsible for the project. In my presentation in a 20th Century US History course, I remember one of our group members never showed up and never joined our meetings discussing the presentations. We wrote several emails to my professor to remove the person from our group so we could re-organize our presentation. Such cases might be usual when preparing a group presentation, and grades are negatively affected by the lack of engagement of group members, which might make you annoyed.

On the other hand, in my experiences with individual presentations, you will receive a higher grade as long as your language and slides convey your thoughts. Most presentations don’t require you to prepare a draft, but a great slide can clarify your content organization so you can speak fluently and less intensively. Presentations are usual in any field of study between 100 and 300-level courses. Its topic can be a proposal for a long paper or can be a group research project. Compared to writing a paper or taking an exam, presentations take less preparation time. But it requires your communication abilities, so the opinion “easier” is always relative rather than absolute.

I still like my finals. I only have papers and take-home exams because they do not have a specific time that I must be in the classroom, so I can finish them earlier and enjoy my break earlier. These three different forms of assignment assess college students’ different academic abilities. Examinations test students’ general understanding of knowledge. Papers evaluate students’ abilities to use knowledge to establish their understanding between facts and opinions. Presentations train students to communicate knowledge as well as collaborate between different people. Some of them are difficult, and some of them are less stressful. However, I believe it does not matter which type of assignment you get, your overall intellectual maturity, critical thinking, and communication skills will be improved throughout four years of college, better preparing us for future studies and professional experiences in post-college life.

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