The Case Against Midterms

While the title of my post may suggest contemporary disgust with the political system–really? It is already time for another election cycle?–my intentions today are merely pedagogical. There has been much recent discussion on the utility of exams. Do they truly capture a student’s level of knowledge? Or, do they force a student to cram as much arbitrary information into their brains, only then to regurgitate a muddled mess of facts onto an exam sheet, after which the sacred course content is lost forever? I have tried to achieve a relative balance between exams and content knowledge in my Civil War Era class. While the class is predominately lecture-based, buttressed by primary and secondary source discussions, I craft my content toward big ideas, concepts, and arguments rather than an exclusive fact-based presentation. I strive to get my students thinking about the central problems for the era, developing their own position on a given topic. I am less interested, for example, in them remembering the planks of the Compromise of 1850, and instead want them to think about the nature of compromise as an effective political tool. Thus my exams are take-home essays on which students are free to use their notes and readings. (Yes, I am fully aware of the obvious pitfalls of this approach in the Technology Age. Incidentally, Turn It In has been a wonderful resource).

And that brings me to my argument today: the midterm structure is flawed. Mississippi State University, like many institutions, is based on the traditional fifteen-week schedule. My students, therefore, are responsible for material that addresses the ideological roots of disunion and anti-slavery, the coming of the Civil War, why the South seceded, the mobilization of armies, the formulation of national military strategies, the conduct of the first two years of the war, and the processes of emancipation. That is a lot of material. I am not, though, concerned with weighing down my students with material, nor am I moved complaints of stress. This is college, after all.

My concern, at least in my Civil War era course, is that the midterm model strives to do too much with the material at hand. Perhaps a course structured on three exams, covering 1) the coming of the war; 2) conduct of the war; and 3) the long-term implications and meaning of the war, might yield a better understanding and comprehension of the period. I have no doubt that my students are capable of performing within the midterm model. But I have developed two related concerns: one, that the nature of the midterm exam will be too broad, forcing students not to think as deeply as they would about a more focused topic. And two, that by distilling the information broadly, students may come away from the class the same way they would from taking a specific, fact-based, regurgitating exam: not remembering very much.

Naturally, every professor is different, views her/his classes in unique ways, and are governed largely by the nature of their topics. My course lends itself nicely to the three-exam model, and I have already made the appropriate changes to the syllabus for next semester. I am, by the way, teaching the Civil War Era again in the spring, which is a great pedagogical boon, allowing me to see the immediate effects of the changes to the course.

I encourage everyone to think about the implications of their exam structure. It seems, based purely on my own observations and hardly on any scientific results, that midterms seem to be the standard. I will admit that I chose the midterm model simply because I wanted to cut down on the amount of grading in the semester. But I soon realized the material and substantive implications of not building the course and its evaluation tools around more focused elements. And now, back to reading about those midterm elections…

2 thoughts on “The Case Against Midterms

  1. I agree with many of your concerns. Especially in upper-level courses, I think that exams run contrary to the skills we are trying to develop. In survey classes, however, I think they can serve a real purpose because they force students to grapple with prioritizing information and finding connections between class sessions and make students find concise ways to express this information.

    Admittedly, I do two exams and a final paper in my surveys so I really don’t buy the idea of a mid-term.

  2. I rarely, rarely assign exams in upper-level courses. I believe I did so once. Those students should be honing their writing skills in more useful formats, like blogging or book reviews. I use the three-exam model in my survey U.S. history courses, since lower-division students really do need to be tested more frequently than twice a year, given that many know very little about the subject matter. When I tried just a midterm and final exam they got very overwhelmed.

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