Five Reasons to Stop Giving Exams in Class

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It is a common, but not universal practice to administer exams to students in class (e.g., Rovai, 2000). Traditionally, students come to class and take exams silently and independently without any resources. They have a time-limit that is usually the length of the class. The exams may be multiple-choice, matching, short answer, essay, etc., but even if there are multiple versions of the exam, all students basically do the same thing in the same way. We believe there are several compelling reasons why we may want to stop giving exams in class. We acknowledge that many instructors have valid reasons for giving exams in class (e.g., alternative assessment plans require time and effort, concerns about academic dishonesty; Cramp et al., 2019; Still & Still, 2015), and we urge instructors to use the practices that best fit their teaching philosophies and needs of their specific classes. However, we wish to address the limitations of doing so and offer five reasons to consider to stop giving exams in class. We believe these recommendations may increase the engagement of instructors and students, which may enhance the success of our teaching and learning (Saucier, 2019a; Saucier, Miller, Martens, & Jones, in press).

1. Exams in class are unduly stressful.

Exams given in class are stressful for students (e.g., Zeidner, 2010) and instructors (Madara & Namango, 2016). The instructor and/or teaching assistant proctor the exam, which includes patrolling the classroom in search of signs of students cheating. There is a time limit. Students may not be able to sit in their regular seats if more students take the exam than regularly attend class (which is particularly troubling given potential effects of environmental contexts on students’ exam scores; Van Der Wege & Barry, 2008). The exams are often high stakes, making students anxious about the outcome. And, while some may argue that giving exams in class prepares students for the stress of real life (e.g., Durning et al., 2016), it does not seem like the in-class exam experience readily generalizes other contexts. In real life, we often get to look up information from outside resources and double check it before we use it. While we support challenging our students, we believe this type of stress may not be directly helpful.

2. Exams in class are not equitable.

While exams in class are generally stressful, they do not impact all students in the same way. Individuals may experience differing levels of test anxiety (Zeidner, 2010), which may be affected by their experiences of stereotype threat (e.g., Danaher & Crandall, 2008), the imposter phenomenon (e.g., Kumar & Jagacinski, 2006), and/or their general struggles with anxiety (e.g., Zunhammer et al., 2013). The added pressure of the testing situation and the potential high stakes of the exam may cause some students to systematically underperform. Further, some students may have circumstances that require testing accommodations (e.g., extended test time, distraction-free environments). It may be stigmatizing for those students to be unable to take the exam with their classmates and they may feel their absences are conspicuous (e.g., Timmerman & Mulvihill, 2015). Simply put, the ways that we traditionally administer in-class exams may not be fair for everyone.

3. Exams in class are logistically difficult to administer.

The process of administering exams in class may be unnecessarily convoluted. The physical act of passing out exams, particularly if there is more than one form of the exam, is difficult and time-consuming. If the class is large, some students may get their exams several minutes earlier than other students and thus have the advantage of having more time to take their exams. Students who come late may disturb their classmates and may not finish on time. Similarly, students who finish early may distract those who are still working. Proctoring the exam to monitor signs of academic dishonesty and to maintain exam security is a difficult and imperfect process. The subjective experience for instructors and teaching assistants who proctor the exams is aversive. Personally, we are possibly more anxious than our students when we administer exams in class, as we watch them silently and intently, and both worry about cheating and that our students will not do well.

4. Exams in class are not empathetic.

We believe that in class exams are not empathetic, student-focused, or inclusive. We have discussed areas of inequity above, but we also believe in-class exams traditionally do not provide the support or understanding of our students’ potential personal and academic challenges that allow them to successfully demonstrate their learning. Additionally, in-class exams often fail to provide students with opportunities for personalization or creativity. We believe that in-class exams often do not achieve the goals set forth by inclusive teaching philosophies (Lawrie et al., 2017) and empathetic course design perspectives (Engage the Sage, 2021).

5. Exams in class are not fun.

We acknowledge some students do enjoy taking exams (admittedly, one of us loved to take exams as a student), but many do not. When our students tell us about the most meaningful things they did in our classes, they do not talk about exams (nor do we when looking back at our experiences as students). Instead, our students tell us about activities, projects, missions, creative products, and research studies. These are the fun and more meaningful ways that students demonstrate and apply their learning. We fear traditional in-class exams may take the meaning out of the wonderful things we teach and learn and our classes.

What should we do?

We have provided five reasons why we should consider not giving exams in class. For some instructors, exams may still be necessary.  If so, consider redesigning the exam experience to at least partially resolve some of these issues. For instance, you could permit your students to take them when and where they want during a predetermined time span (e.g., online via your institution’s learning management system). Moreover, allowing your students to use resources like their textbooks and class notes may ease test anxiety (e.g., Parsons, 2008) while helping them provide deeper answers to the questions (e.g., Green et al., 2016). This may also alleviate issues of academic honesty—it is not cheating to use these materials if you allow them to. Another option would be to have your students write and take their own exams (i.e., “Exams By You”; Saucier, Schiffer, & Jones, under review). At the very least, consider lowering the stakes of your exams so that one assessment does not have an exaggerated impact on your students’ overall semester grade.

But maybe we don’t need to use exams at all. We would rather infuse empathy into our classes (Engage the Sage, 2021) and bring PEACE (Preparation, Expertise, Authenticity, Caring, Engagement; Saucier, 2019b; Saucier & Jones, 2020) to our students, and perhaps we can offer professional development to our colleagues to help them do so (Saucier, Jones, Renken, & Schiffer, in press). Maybe we can focus our assessments on allowing our students to demonstrate their learning in ways that are applicable to (and fulfilling for) them. We can provide our students with the opportunity to apply the information in more sophisticated ways than mere memorization. We can empower them to demonstrate their learning through projects, papers, videos they create, podcasts they record, and other creative products. We can provide them with guidelines and rubrics to support them. From our own experience, we have been more excited to get the products of these projects than to grade monotonous exams. Everything we assign comes back to us. Let us allow our students to demonstrate their learning in ways that are less anxiety-provoking, more equitable and inclusive, less difficult to administer, more empathetic, and more fun. Using these ideas, we can make assessment more meaningful and more enjoyable for our students and for us.

Donald A. Saucier, PhD (2001, University of Vermont) is a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar and professor of psychological sciences at Kansas State University. Saucier has published more than 80 peer-reviewed journal articles and is a fellow of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, the Society for Experimental Social Psychology, and the Midwestern Psychological Association. His awards and honors include the University Distinguished Faculty Award for Mentoring of Undergraduate Students in Research, the Presidential Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Teaching Resource Prize. Saucier is also the faculty associate director of the Teaching and Learning Center at Kansas State University and offers a YouTube channel called “Engage the Sage” that describes his teaching philosophy, practices, and experiences.

Ashley A. Schiffer is also a doctoral student in the department of psychological sciences at Kansas State University. Her research often pertains to morality in relation to masculine honor ideology and/or military settings. She also works at Kansas State’s Teaching and Learning Center with Saucier and Renken to promote teaching excellence and contribute to the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Noah D. Renken is a doctoral student in the department of psychological sciences at Kansas State University. His research interests center on individual difference factors related to expressions of prejudice. Renken’s recent work has examined masculine honor ideology and the manifestation of attitudes towards stigmatized events (e.g., sexual violence, trauma). Noah also works in the Teaching and Learning Center at Kansas State University, where he collaborates with Saucier on the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) projects.


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