Daniel Lemire's blog

, 1 min read

Death to the 3-hour exam

As an undergraduate student, I hated the 3-hour exams. But I knew how to do well on them. The secret? Get your hands on all exams from the last ten years for this class. Sit down for a couple of days and grind through all questions. It works because a 3-hour exam is a very specific context. But wait… as a professor, why would I care about how my students do on a 3-hour exam? Does it measure what I care about? Jon Dron said it best: “So, I have been thinking about what exams taught me:(…) that the most important things in life generally take around three hours to complete.”

We need novelists, NASA engineers, and researchers. People who can work for days, weeks, months, on the same project. What I want from my students is an ability to sit down for hours and days, and work out difficult problems. I see no evidence that training specifically for exams is the right type of training.

What are the alternatives? At the University of Toronto, we only had take-home exams in higher Mathematics classes. The problems were difficult, but satisfying. What about cheating? I will do whatever I can in my classes to prevent cheating, however my primary function cannot be to thwart cheaters. (Starting in September 2009, I am switching all my classes to take-home exams.)