Final Exams Questions

At Crooked Timber and now at APPS, there’s an ongoing discussion about the use of final exams versus papers. For most upper level courses, I give final papers, though if the class looks like it’s not keeping up with the readings early on, I will switch it to a final. Michael Bérubé notes that it’s less fair to those who have disabilities to give them final exams, but this is a problem easily solved. My son has his own adjustments for his school exams, so it’s something about which I’m unaware, but it’s a problem easily solved: I tell all students they have all the time they need, even if we have to move to another room when the exam period ends. And I mean it: I used to bring long books–now my Kindle—and prepare for a long day of gentle reading. The record stands at a 6.5 hours for a 2-hour exam…

This is for one reason: I get too many papers with various levels of plagiarism and if the paper is meant to test something, then a test it will be. Many students with disabilities will not tell you, so that’s why I tell the whole class they have all the time they need; almost all universities now have disability service offices where students can take their exams anyway. It’s also a system I developed when teaching many, many more students a semester, so certainly papers were out of the question just to have my sanity. And for lower level courses, I get far better essays written in class anyway than if they did them at home; at home it’s the same (generally low) quality, but without the pages of philosopher biographies and “In the history of the world, philosophers have always wondered about the soul” long introductions to read through.


  1. I think your “all the time you need” approach is an excellent accommodation (and good for anyone, and that’s as a scholar with a disability who teaches (or is trying to teach) in disability. In the past when students have asked for multiple days to complete a final I’ve asked to keep their materials between sessions. I imagine that’s a standard practice, but, how would you handle that?

    1. Sorry I missed this, but the holidays intervened. (And for some reason I can’t seem to change my email alerts for comments from an outdated email address.) As for your question: I’ve never had to worry about multiple exam sessions. My exams are designed for two hours, so if it goes longer, then students can take longer that day, and I wouldn’t think to make them come back on another day. Keeping their materials wouldn’t change anything anyway: books and notes are on computers, so taking papers doesn’t seem to change what would matter, would it?

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