Evening exams are glaring exception to division of the day

The College is proud of its “Division of the Day” policy, and rightfully so. A passage in the Student Handbook justifies the division of the day, saying it is necessary “In order to protect the wealth and diversity of activities at Williams: first academics, but also athletics, performances, cultural events, volunteer work, and others.” The College recognizes that while Williams is an academic institution, many valuable experiences come outside the classroom. Thus, it is beneficial to ensure that there is time during the day for both academic and extracurricular activities. There is a small wrinkle in this policy, noted as exception number one in the Student Handbook: evening exams. Professors of multi-section courses are allowed to hold evening exams for those courses.

Evening exams both serve little purpose and violate the principles upon which the division of the day is based.

One might argue that the effect of one or two evening exams per semester on a student’s extra-curricular activities is minimal, but the effects on a performance group can be significant. My experiences have been largely concerning musical groups, but I am sure a quick survey of theater and dance groups would yield the same complaint. Student absences caused by evening exams make holding productive rehearsals difficult or impossible. I am sure that many professors are frustrated by excessive student absenteeism in class. A symphony conductor feels much the same way when he tries to hold a rehearsal where half of the Violas are taking a Biology exam and the solo Oboe is sitting an exam for Chemistry. Occasional absenteeism would be less harmful if musical groups met every day, but most, recognizing that Williams students are busy with academics, athletics and countless other extracurriculars, rehearse only once or twice a week, sometimes rehearsing only five or six times before a performance. In the effect on the group this is equivalent to a student missing two Wednesday afternoon seminars throughout a semester.

It is not even that evening exams are an undesirable but necessary evil. Given the academic structure of the College, there is no good reason to allow evening exams. Professors may cite a variety of reasons for holding exams in the evening. For example, holding exams in the evening allows professors to write exams that take longer than 50 or 75 minutes to take. If a professor wishes to give an exam longer than 75 minutes, she can give it as a timed, closed-book take-home. The student receives a sealed envelope containing the exam. At his leisure the student breaks the seal, writes the exam and at the end of the allotted time, signs an honor code statement and seals the completed exam in the envelope. I have taken classes where exams were handled in this manner and it worked extremely well, allowing students to fit in the exam when their schedule allowed. Some exams require the student to view slides or listen to musical examples, but in a case like this the portion of the exam requiring other media could be given in class and any other short-answer or essay questions written at home.

Take-home exams that take longer than a single class period may worry professors that cheating could occur. Take-home exams, one might argue, provide ample opportunity for students to collaborate illegally and share answers than do in class exams. Should this concern us? If it does, what does that say about the Williams student body? The academic Honor Code stands as a pillar of education at Williams. The Preamble to the Honor Code in the course catalog reads, “As an institution fundamentally concerned with the free exchange of ideas, Williams College has always depended on the academic integrity of each of its members.” The Code follows, outlining the rules for academic honesty regarding, papers, exams, problem sets, and lab reports. Each student must sign the Honor Code at the beginning of each year. Any restrictions that a professor wishes to place on take-home exams falls clearly under the Honor Code; students are bound to follow them.

Professors may worry that students will simply ignore the Honor Code when taking an exam. Such concerns are indicative of a larger problem. As the Honor Code states, free intellectual exchange, the basis of any strong liberal arts program, relies on academic honesty on the part of all students and professors. This requires that every student on campus abides by the Honor Code. Professors’ concerns about cheating come from the concerns that some students chose not to follow the Honor Code. This problem will not be solved by monitoring students more closely during exams, but rather by working to make the student body take the Honor Code more seriously. One way to do this would be to make academic honesty a more important factor in admissions.

The division of the day distinguishes Williams from many other colleges and universities. It is important at a college such as Williams where students have many different skills and interests. The division of the day helps maintain balance in students’ lives between academics and extracurriculars. Evening exams, however, disrupt this balance and serve no necessary purpose.