For some of us, midterm season has just begun. For others, it’s a week past, a week to come, or spread out across the whole few weeks like a depressing multi-course platter of pain. No matter where in the process you are, though, you’re likely to suffer through at least one testing indignity at some point in your college career: essay exams.
Exams are a necessary evil at any level of education. Teachers can’t be expected to just divine your progress and success in a class from thin air, so we can never escape the harshness of the vicious red grading pen, but in-class essays are something we can easily live without in any class, no matter how esoteric or philosophical the subject matter. It’s an unfair evaluator of progress and knowledge, and more bafflingly it’s a pain in any grader’s ass. So why is it still around?
Several quarters ago I took a course graded entirely on the basis of two essay exams, each consisting of three to four hastily scribbled theses covering topics from more than a dozen lengthy readings. Coming from a background in first English and then journalism, I came to the class familiar with the concept of gathering my thoughts quickly and putting them on the paper. Still, I’ve always thought that it takes a lot more effort, concentration and practical knowledge to go back and edit away your inconsistencies and dead-ends.
The fact is, every other type of test students suffer through evaluates learning more efficiently. Simple recitation of fact or readings can be accomplished with short-answer or multiple-choice questions. Any professor who wants to know your thoughts and conclusions more intimately should be able to grade a take-home exam or essay, allowing you time to compose ideas in a way that makes sense to more than just you and the lurking creatures settled in your brain.
An essay that requires you to refer to past readings and cite them properly prepares lawyers, journalists, business writers and just about everyone who will ever have to sit at a keyboard and write, much more effectively than letting them vomit up their thoughts and hazy recollections on a piece of loose-leaf paper.
Professors, please, please, please stay away from this archaic and painful test. The only people it helps are the old codgers running the Advanced Placement tests in high schools across America, and all it does for them is make them feel like their test really does help prepare students for college. There’s no reason we need to help them keep the secret that college English classes require more than a No. 2 Pencil, an understanding of “Huckleberry Finn” and a few sheets of college-lined paper.