Exams In the Summer Term: The Optimal Option?

Most universities in the United Kingdom apply what is called the “trimester-structure”: the division of the academic year into a Michaelmas, Lent and Summer Term. In general, although this differs per program and per university, it is the case that by far most of the examinations are due in the Summer Term. The question is: is this the optimal educational structure? There are, I think, at least two main problems with the structure as it is currently being applied: one regarding its didactic implications, and one regarding its (in)efficiency.

Let’s start with the didactics. As numerous scientific studies have shown, feedback – and especially immediate feedback – are of great importance in the learning of new material. This is because, when mastering new material, it is important to be made aware in an early stage of errors that – if not resolved – might turn into significant problems. And although immediate feedback is part of most lectures and seminars, there’s one crucial area in which this aspect seems to be ignored: examinations. As mentioned before, an intrinsic part of the trimester-structure is that by far most of the examination takes place in the last term (i.e., the Summer Term). This implies that material studied in the first term (Michaelmas Term) gets tested in the third term (Summer Term). It seems reasonable to assume that, in this case, the feedback period between absorbing the material and the material being tested is very long (a couple of months), and therefore lacks the impact it could have upon correcting students’ knowledge.

Besides a didactic argument, one could employ what might be called an “economical” view on studying. Scientific research – from Psychology Today – shows that students have the tendency to study more when the exams get nearer. One could say that the “marginal knowledge-output of learning” is higher when the examination period gets nearer. For now it is irrelevant whether this is due to procrastination on the side of the students, or due to an intrinsic part of human motivation. The fact of the matter is that, when applied to the trimester-structure, this tendency implies that most of students’ studying will take place in the (short) period before the Summer Term. But isn’t this an inefficient usage of both the Michaelmas and Lent Term?

There seems to be an easy way in which the current system could be improved upon (in the light of the aforementioned two arguments). One way would be by moving away from 100% examinations in the Summer Term to – let’s say – 33% exams per term. Another option might be to keep the 100% examination structure in place, but simply create more courses that take up one term only, and test these after the respective term. Besides being optimal from an economic perspective, since students will be studying “at full capacity” all the time, these options would drastically shorten the feedback-period between the absorption of new material and the testing of it, therefore being beneficial from a didactic point of view as well.

In conclusion, it might be worthwhile to take a look at these, and likewise options, to improve upon the educational structure currently applied by many universities in the United Kingdom.

Written by Rob Graumans

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