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Professors should cancel scheduled finals, reduce length of take-home exams

<h5>1879 Hall and the lawn in front of Frist Campus Center.</h5>
<h6>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
1879 Hall and the lawn in front of Frist Campus Center.
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

When I read Dean of the College Jill Dolan’s announcement about the postponement of Dean’s Date until May 10, I was pleased to see the administration taking a step to support students’ mental health. The change will give many of us needed breathing room during a semester when burnout, loneliness, and grief have been all too common, and I thank the administrators who listened to students and implemented it. However, I am concerned that a delayed Dean’s Date will not adequately alleviate the stress of students with final exams. Professors must scale back their exams.

In a semester with only a two-day break, fatigue created by virtual learning, and continual grief from tragedy, we need more, not less, time to finish our final assignments. The Dean’s Date extension gives us this time: it increases the length of reading period from eight to 13 days. This is roughly on par with the length of reading period in past semesters when students effectively had 11 days to finish end-of-term assignments between the Friday when classes ended and Dean’s Date. Last semester, there were two full weeks between the last day of classes and Dean’s Date. 

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However, a delayed Dean’s Date will not give students any more time to prepare for and take final exams. With finals starting on May 6, there are only nine days between the end of classes and the start of exams, fewer than the 12 in a typical semester. Yes, students with take-home exams could choose to take their finals later. However, with finals ending on May 14, taking more time to study means cramming more exams into a window of a week or less. If a student, according to Dean Dolan’s suggestion to “manage your workloads idiosyncratically,” waits until after Dean’s Date to begin their final exams (as they might during a normal semester), they will have four days to finish. 

Scheduled exams create additional, and more severe, challenges. Some of us have exams scheduled during the extended reading period, forcing us to either complete Dean’s Date assignments early or juggle Dean’s Date and finals simultaneously. The compressed final exam period means that some of us have several exams scheduled over the span of one or two days. Changing Dean’s Date does not fix either of these complications. 

I hope that it’s clear why having time between classes and exams is crucial. Princeton is stressful during a normal semester, especially the spring, even with 11 days between classes and Dean’s Date and 10 days over which final exams are scheduled. In a semester when students have had almost no break and have struggled exceedingly with mental health, it’s unreasonable to expect us to complete the same assignments and exams with even less time. I do not think there is an equitable way at this point to lengthen the window for final exams, but I do think there is a solution: cancel scheduled finals and reduce the length of take-home exams. 

To professors giving scheduled finals, I urge you to cancel them and convert them to take-home assignments, especially if they conflict with the extended reading period. Alternatively, make your exam optional. Reweight exams to limit the potential impact on a student’s grade or only count the exam if it increases a student’s average.  

To professors already administering take-home finals, I urge you to shorten their length. Many students have three, four, or five take-home finals, some of which can take a day to complete. Cap the amount of time needed to finish your exams to three hours. Convert them to short projects that allow collaboration. Lightening the burden at the end of a stressful semester when there has been less time during the semester to digest course content and less time now to study is absolutely necessary.

I hear the concern that scaling back exams could compromise the integrity of a course by making it harder to evaluate learning at the end of the semester. My response is that the COVID-19 pandemic, the limitations that students face this semester, and grief have fundamentally compromised learning. 

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Professors, this is not your fault — you are not to blame for the conditions that have made teaching and learning exceedingly difficult this year. We are grateful for the work many of you have done to adapt and support us. However, if there is a moment when your compassion is more needed than ever, that moment is now.  

Allen Liu is a junior from Chattanooga, Tenn. He can be reached at afliu@princeton.edu. 

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