Thursday, July 18, 2019

Crunch time: What are we really examining with final exams?

May 15, 2019 by Emily Welch, features writer

I’ve been a student at Camosun for three years; the biggest hurdle I’ve experienced has been getting through final exams. The feeling is always the same: anxiety squirming in the pit of my stomach as I try to figure out how I can prove myself on a few small sheets of paper. My own recall memory isn’t great; I buckle under pressure. Everything I’ve done up to that point—papers, assignments, stripping down to my most vulnerable self in class discussions—might mean absolutely nothing if I don’t nail the exam.

I always wonder the same thing: does anybody else feel this way, or am I the only one? I thought it would be a good idea to investigate, to find out from instructors and students the advantages and disadvantages of taking final exams, and the different ways that we deal with the stress.

I decided to tackle the instructors first. It was a chance to see their humanity come through and to realize that they were all students themselves once—a useful realization when the stress and feelings of resentment come alive within us during exam time. 

Psychology instructor Cate Pelling says that she had two different experiences as a student: when she didn’t know what she wanted to do and didn’t prepare very well, and when she found a program she was interested in and became more conscientious about her studying.

This story originally appeared in our May 15, 2019 issue.

“Things like giving myself plenty of time for what I was studying, checking and making sure that I understood everything, well, it led to success,” says Pelling. “It all comes down to motivation. I went back to school as a mature student, and I had to juggle a job, three kids… but since I was motivated, with something I really wanted to do, it made things easier”

Anthropology instructor Karoline Guelke says that studying as you go along throughout the semester is really helpful, although she admits that she didn’t do that a student.

“I remember going to a psychology workshop as a grad student, and I had never seen these before, these studies where they look at the memory. Even if you are at a lecture, and you are completely engaged, you would still be leaving the room and remembering maybe 80 percent, and that is the best-case scenario,” says Guelke. “During the course of the day you are losing it already, and if I asked you some questions about it five days later, you probably will remember only about 20 percent, and that is if you are really interested. But they have found that if that same day, or the next day, you take 10 minutes in the evening just to sit down and go over your notes, maybe rewrite a few things, just rehash it in your mind, it does amazing things for your memory. But I recognize that with exams, students have them close together, and time management is hard.” 

Ten minutes? Anyone can do 10 minutes, I think. So… why don’t we? Guelke agrees with me, but understands too well what it’s like being a student.

“I know that consistency is not easy for a student; it wasn’t for me either,” Guelke says. “But taking a little time, even every other day, just a few minutes to review things [helps].”

Camosun College ombudsman Carter MacDonald says the best way to cope with exams is to be consistent.

“Practice good study habits right from the beginning,” says MacDonald. “I would also highly recommend that students pay attention to the course outline, because that is really like an unofficial contract between the faculty member and the student. It is what is expected. I so often see students realize at the last minute that they haven’t lived up to the progressive steps in the outline, and then it sometimes gets to be too late.”

First year Mental Health and Addictions (MHA) student Hayley Veintrop started at the college in January and is taking the MHA program as part of a new chapter in her life. Veintrop has a new-age approach to exam preparation.

“I cope with the pressure of exams through meditation and mindfulness, and I also use affirmations,” says Veintrop. “I know it may sound corny, but it really helps. My personal affirmation that I tell myself is: ‘I know all of the information, and I’m prepared for my exam.’” 

Second year Pre-Social Work student Gabriel Aclassi is preparing to transfer to UVic. Aclassi also has a less traditional method of self-care.

“Seriously, I schedule time into every day to relax and not think about exams, if at all possible,” says Aclassi. “I also make sure that I have one day a week set aside as a full decompression day where I don’t allow myself to do any schoolwork. This means that I actually have time to decompress and process the information for school on a subconscious level for a bit.”

First-year University Transfer student Sarah Shumanski feels huge anxieties at exam time, and has difficulties dealing with them.

“I cope very poorly, to be honest,” says Shumanksi. “Depending on the class, I get very stressed. For my math exam, it was worth 50 percent of my mark, and I spent two days basically trying to re-teach myself the entire course. I watched a lot of YouTube to try and calm myself down.”

Seems reasonable to me. Anything to make the hamster wheel stop for a minute, as far as I’m concerned. Still, I’ve always wondered if exams are truly necessary when it comes to showing what you know. 

“Exams are meaningful because how else are we going to determine what someone is ready to do, or whether they are job-ready?” says Pelling. “People have to have a base of knowledge which to practice from, and testing is a good way to determine that. When I was a student and was involved in studies that I was really interested in, then I actually found exam period kind of exciting. Kind of like a sports competition. So, weeks of preparation leading to a morning of exam brain. I wasn’t even competitive against other people; I was competitive with myself. When one has that intrinsic sort of interest, it makes the whole process less onerous.”  

Veintrop also agrees that there is value in exams.

“I think there is valuable learning in exams. Granted, I’ve only taken one class so far as a Camosun student,” says Veintrop. “That class was English, and you study by practicing structure rather than memorization. I’m curious to see what my opinion on this question will be after more classes. If anything, I learned a lot about myself and how I study for exams.”

Guelke also believes that exams are meaningful—although not always how one might expect them to be.

“They are one specific way of testing information that doesn’t always work well for all people,” she says. “I still do think that there is value in memorizing information, because it is only when you have memorized information that we can show what exactly we know. I personally try and vary my exams in the way that I ask questions, so they are not just multiple choice. I try and add different creative questions, and choices.”

MacDonald believes that it can go either way—depending on the student. 

“Whether exams are meaningful is a debate that has gone on for a long time,” says MacDonald. “I have spoken with a student, here at Camosun, who convinced his instructor to allow him to be orally questioned for the exam questions. This was very open-minded and wonderfully accepting of the faculty member. This student found it very easy to talk, as opposed to the writing, and the memorization. I have also dealt with some grade appeals this semester, where students would say that they knew the work, but couldn’t remember how to get it all down in a written fashion when it came to taking the exam.”

Veintrop has been pleased with her exam results so far, but that doesn’t change the fact that the memorization process was difficult for her.

“Based on my first and only exam at Camosun, I did quite well,” she says. “Therefore, I’m not against exams… yet. Granted, I do excel in English. When it comes to memorization, I struggle. Overall, I find exam time very stressful and emotionally draining.” 

Guelke also believes that exams don’t always necessarily reflect the actual intelligence of a student.

“I recognize that with some students, the exam situation is very stressful,” she says. “I see that they might be very strong in their written work. Then that is sort of sad, especially if it is a first-year class, when there is so much weight given to the exams. So, I think, maybe I should revise the percentage. But then you would also not believe how many students do not hand in their papers. So, some students are only making it because of the exams. It is a difficult toss-up.”

First-year Psychology student Daniel Gallant is, like Aclassi, preparing to transfer to UVic. Gallant says exams have actually been helpful for his style of learning.

“In some ways, I do better on exams than any other component of my courses,” he says. “When studying for exams, I generally need to focus on them one at a time, or I lose my mind. I prioritize them chronologically. I am naturally good at memorizing information, and I also find exams less time-consuming than research projects and weekly labs. Therefore, I appreciate exams.”

One common thread when talking to people about exams is anxiety, the stress that final exams bring to a lot of students. Pelling remembers her own anxieties very well. 

“My most memorable experience was when I was writing my Grade 12 math exam,” says Pelling, “I was very anxious about it. I flipped over the exam booklet, saw the word ‘name,’ and I could not remember my name because I was so anxious. That was a very good lesson about the power of anxiety. I have never forgotten that—being so highly aroused that you just can’t process information.”

Well, that’s slightly reassuring. I had always been curious whether anyone else felt the blind panic I felt during the week of finals. The baristas at By the Books, the coffee shop at Camosun’s Lansdowne campus, know full well the perils of exam week.

“Here in the coffee shop we see lots of frazzled students, students that are anxious that the term is over, but happy that it’s coming to an end,” says By the Books barista Catherine Latour. “We also see students that are a bit more absent-minded than usual. They forget things behind in the shop, like wallets, glasses, phones, and such. It’s also just the normal flow of people, and they need their treats, their caffeine—in exam week they might need a little more. There is a bit of a higher energy, an anxiety.”

I wondered whether people have broken down in the coffee shop during exam week; turns out that, yes, they have, and Latour and her colleagues do what they can to help.

“One or two have, yes,” Latour says. “We’ve been there for them. We’ve given out a few hugs.” 

MacDonald also notices the rise in tension at the campus during crunch time.

“It gets very hectic,” he says. “I come to my office at 8, and am able to leave at about 5:30, but that is expected. There are times of peaks and valleys, and during exams is a busy, busy time.”

After all this talk of tension, anxiety, and worry, I was delighted to hear of some students’ positive experiences. Veintrop had a very memorable exam-time moment involving an instructor who made all the difference.

“During exam week, my heart was touched by my instructor [Deanna Roozendaal],” says Veintrop. “I was feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Deanna took time to meet with me outside of class hours to reassure me. Together, we went over the exam-preparation assignment to make sure I was clear. Deanna helped me gain confidence and I ended up getting an A on my exam.”

Gallant also remembers a particularly terrifying exam experience that turned positive because of a wonderful teacher.

“I was preparing for my English exam on a Wednesday when my professor[Maureen Niwa] emailed me and asked where I was,” says Gallant. “It turns out the exam was on Monday after all, and had started an hour ago. Busing would have taken too long, so I frantically rode my bike to campus from Tillicum, and my professor let me stay an hour late to finish writing. Maureen Niwa—best teacher ever.”

It’s nice to know there’s some teachers here at Camosun who will do something as seemingly small as taking that extra moment to help a frazzled, exam-blasted student or give some one-on-one attention that makes the student’s dream of doing well become a reality.

Personally, and based on the research I’ve done for this story, I’m not so convinced about exams. It’s true that it’s a way of showing knowledge and whether you have put your all into your studies. But with the pressures, anxiety, late nights, and deep-breathing exercises, it’s not so much a test of knowledge but a test of the human spirit. A testament to this is the friendships that Pelling formed during her time as a student, friendships which made the exam process easier, and certainly made it more special.

“One thing I always loved about exams was the camaraderie I felt with my fellow students,” Pelling says. “We all went into the exam room like we were going into battle or something. As an instructor today, I sometimes get a little envious of people coming into write an exam. You’ve all worked together, you’ve all worked really hard, and you’ve gotten through that process together.”

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