The weekly student newspaper of Bucknell University

The Bucknellian

The weekly student newspaper of Bucknell University

The Bucknellian

The weekly student newspaper of Bucknell University

The Bucknellian

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Midterm Madness: Exams or Papers?

Evelyn+Pierce%2C+Graphics+Manager+%2F+The+Bucknellian
Evelyn Pierce, Graphics Manager / The Bucknellian

This semester has quite literally flown by in the blink of an eye. It’s so hard to believe we’re already experiencing the plights of Midterms. Whether you’ve already tackled your midterms or are bracing yourself for the storm, the format tends to come down to two options: an exam or a paper. It’s a topic I’ve talked about extensively with my peers, especially considering the diverse range of courses we take. Oftentimes, social sciences and humanities courses tend to learn towards papers for midterms, although sometimes there are exams instead. It’s a different story in math and science courses, where exams are much more common. After all, who would want to churn out an 8-page essay on discrete math structures? The question is, which one is better? 

I pride myself on being well-prepared for class, producing quality work, and studying everyday. Yet, despite my efforts when it comes to studying, completing homework and actively engaging in lectures, there’s one hurdle I have struggled with: test anxiety. I could study consistently for the entire semester, but I will still find myself huddled up in a common room somewhere staring at my laptop and notes late at night because I’m so riled up and nervous. This sentiment is echoed by many of my peers, who are often tasked with grappling with the pressure of timed, closed-book exams.

While I acknowledge the importance of exams in assessing information retention and understanding, I will always prefer papers and written assignments. Maybe it’s my love for writing—after all, I serve as the editor for this section of the newspaper. I do, however, find myself thinking that it’s more than just some passion. When tasked with a research paper or analytical essay, students have to read various texts, analyze sources and synthesize information. It’s a process that not only solidifies their comprehension of the material, but also nurtures their ability to articulate well-formed opinions.

Writing allows one to delve deep into the subject matter, immersing themselves in research, analysis, and critical thought. This immersive approach to learning enhances the understanding of the concept or topic in ways that a timed exam simply cannot match. 

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Moreover, the absence of strict time constraints provides the freedom to explore ideas, refine arguments, and produce quality work. When taking a timed exam, on the other hand, students may find themselves rushing and under much more pressure. 

Of course, it’s essential to acknowledge the challenges that paper assignments pose, particularly for instructors and professors. Grading lengthy essays is very time consuming, as professors may have to take into account the tiniest grammar mistakes while also thoughtfully reading through numerous papers. Additionally, the nature of written assignments opens the door to concerns regarding plagiarism and academic integrity. I mean we’ve all become aware of technologies like ChatGPT and others. Another drawback is how grading papers is a lot more subjective than grading an exam with clear cut answers. Professors might have to be a lot more mindful that their grading is/should not be based on how they would answer the question. 

Despite these drawbacks, I remain stern in my belief that the benefits of paper assignments far outweigh the challenges they present.

Writing papers presents students with the challenge of synthesizing information and articulating it in their own words, maybe even incorporating their own opinions and arguments. This process encourages them to critically evaluate their stance on a given topic, while extending their knowledge. Unlike the passive act of memorization often associated with exam preparation, writing requires active engagement and comprehension. 

It is also worth considering the integration of short writing assignments in Math and Science curricula, rather than relying solely on quizzes. Students are used to having to memorize formulas, methods and concepts, through whatever memorization abilities they’ve picked up. But what if you asked them to actually explain why that works, or why it even matters? The ability to articulate the underlying principles behind concepts demonstrates a deeper understanding. Students could develop essential writing and language skills, while also demonstrating overall comprehension and the ability to think critically. 

While I may personally always prefer papers and written assignments, I recognize that every student is unique, and what works for me may not work for others. For educators, I think it’s imperative to embrace a diverse range of assessment methods though, and not just always hand out a quiz or an intense exam. After all, the ultimate goal is not just for professors to test knowledge and for students to cram study information they’re gonna forget a month afterwards, but also to cultivate a love of learning and actual comprehension of the material.

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