What You Don’t Know May Hurt Them

Cure-Paper-Clutter

At the beginning of the semester, we give our students the syllabus for the course. It usually includes a description of the goals of the course, a calendar of readings and topics, and some information about the assignments and due dates. At Vassar, we are also required to tell our students during that first week about the final exam. We have a number of choices of format:

  1. Regularly scheduled exam– this exam is scheduled by the Registrar for one of the examination dates set aside in the College Calendar. These dates can’t be changed once set unless a student has three exams in a row or other arduous situation. The final exam period is published years in advance, so students know what’s coming, and so do those faculty who select this option for their course.
  2. A take-home examination– this exam may be assigned any time AFTER the last day of classes and is due at the end of the third day of the exam period. Our exam period is usually a five-day period, with the last day most often being the last day the College is in session.
  3. Self-scheduled examination– this exam is taken at a single sitting during a period that begins the first day of the study period and ends the third day of the exam period.
  4. Paper-in-lieu of examination– this kind of final assignment is meant to take no longer than the time required to study and take a final examination. It is assigned during the last week of classes and is due by the end of the third day of the exam period.
  5. Other– For some inexplicable reason, we have this category, which basically undermines all the other categories, since you can just select it and do whatever you want.

Lots of classes here also have “final” projects. Many of these involve papers and/or presentations and often occur during the last week of classes. There are also final papers and even last unit exams that occur during the last week of classes.

We each figure out the assignments and final work that fit with our particular class goals. We do this in isolation, without thinking about the overall course load that an individual student might have. Here’s what can happen (based on a conversation I had with a student the other day):

  1. Class One: Two papers each due the last week of classes. Then, on the last day, the final paper will be assigned, to be due by the third day of exams.
  2. Class Two: A project paper and presentation the last week of classes. A final during the exam period, in this case the fourth day of exams.
  3. Class Three: A project paper and presentation the last week of classes. A regular paper due the first couple of days of the study period. A final exam during the exam period, in this case the third day of exams.
  4. Class Four: A project paper and presentation the last week of classes. A take-home final exam. Due by the end of the third day of the exam period.

So, this one student, in the final 10 days of the semester, has seven major papers, three major presentations and three final exams to study for and take (and a partridge in a pear tree). If you think about the number of hours it takes to think through a paper topic, do the research to support the ideas, actually write it, hopefully revise it……and then multiply that by 7, it’s pretty horrific. I’m sure that some of the work on many of the papers began earlier, but, still. This seems like torture!

Many of the students I met with during the last week of classes when I was in the Dean of Studies office found the stress from this many major assignments simply overwhelming. At no other time during the semester is there such a huge concentration of assignments. And many of these assignments are capstone, cumulative, final projects.

For many students, the stress will be too much to bear. They will not be able to eat, sleep or take care of themselves. Many might already be sick (and spreading infection to others already weakened by stress). They definitely will not be able to do their best work on each and every assignment.

It’s too late now for you to make changes to your current course syllabi. But, when you plan your courses for next semester, please keep in mind that having 50% or more of your course material due in the last week or two of the semester might not be the best idea. Keep in mind that your students are taking other courses. Keep in mind the academic calendar and how the final few weeks become jammed up with all this final stuff.

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