Editorial: Overflowing exam weeks are not inevitable

Editorial Board

We are quickly approaching another daunting week of exams—midterms. Exam weeks are palpable on campus. There is a lot of hustle and bustle, but little laughter. Attendance at club meetings drops off. In pre-COVID times, the library was beyond capacity and the anxiety in the air was thick enough to feel. On the third floor of Kelvin Smith Library, just dropping a pen could warrant death glares from others. The tangible feeling of exam weeks has not disappeared with the onset of the pandemic, but merely adjusted to our virtual environment. There are even fewer people with their cameras on (and in attendance, in general) in Zoom classes, and questions posed by professors are often met with crickets—or snores. 

But these stressful exam weeks are not inevitable. Case Western Reserve University students do not need to be awake for days on end trying to study for two exams while simultaneously researching and writing three papers. Instead, CWRU should take responsibility for ensuring there is limited overlap in due dates. We should have a system where students can change their deadlines without facing punishment. 

The most popular response against such a proposal is, “Well, that’s not how the real world works.” This comment is frankly humorous, because there is very little about higher education that emulates the real world. Namely, our many exams ask us to memorize an abundance of information that, in the real world, we could simply look up. Moreover, most assignments are entirely independent, while in the real world, we’ll be partnering with colleagues. After all, our world is most effective and responsible when we are all collaborating, instead of working on our own against each other. 

And yes, we will have hectic weeks once we have graduated, but they are not synonymous with preparing for a host of exams and papers. In fact, the techniques most students feel forced to adopt in order to excel on these assignments—drinking energy drinks, and neglecting sleep and self-care—are much too toxic to be considered normal. We certainly shouldn’t be encouraging schedules that force students to adopt these behaviors in the name of preparation for our future. 

Instead, CWRU should prioritize students’ health—both physical and mental—by limiting the number of exams and assignments due in one week. After all, the university suggests communicating with navigators, University Health and Counseling Services, and the Office of Accommodated Testing and Services to ensure appropriate academic schedules for students with health concerns—why aren’t we doing the same for all students, regardless of a diagnosis? 

There are some amazing professors that ask about students’ schedules and adjust due dates according; however, they are few and far between. If professors do not take this initiative, then the responsibility falls on students to either ask for an extension or figure out how to prepare for everything in time. 

The university responded to an inquiry about a proposal to limit the number of assignments due in one week by suggesting students “inquire [for extensions] as early as possible” to ensure there is sufficient time to consider the requests and to consult navigators, faculty advisors “and/or others” to figure out alternatives if a professor declines extensions. 

Asking for extensions is certainly an option. However, there is a tendency for instructors to view these students as lazy or irresponsible for not being able to just get their work done. Most students feel that asking for extensions just isn’t an option; after all, everyone else is able to get the work done, so shouldn’t I be able to do the same? In reality, rather than inappropriately blaming ourselves or trying to compare ourselves with other students, we should all be promoting more reasonable schedules. There is no reason any of us need to be in these situations. 

The university states that final exam schedules are generated to “avoid direct conflicts … and minimize the number of students with more than two exams on a single day.” However, the University Registrar’s page doesn’t go into detail like other schools, such as Cornell University, that urge professors to grant extensions or make-up dates when these situations arise. Regardless, CWRU recognizes that having more than two exams on one day during finals week is outrageous. So again, why aren’t they adopting similar limits during the rest of the semester? 

Under our current system, it is largely inevitable that there will be multiple exams and/or papers due in one week. However, CWRU could alter the navigator position responsibilities to better address these overloaded weeks. To start, there are many core classes that hundreds of CWRU students are taking at once—especially in STEM degrees. Prior to the start of the semester, navigators should review the syllabi for these core classes that are usually taken together. For example, the fall of a STEM major’s first year usually includes introductory biology, chemistry, mathematics, computer programming and physics classes. The university registrar lists the final exam schedules for these classes separately from all others because of the “large numbers of first-year students” enrolled. Since the university recognizes that the final exams for these courses need to be spaced out, the same should be done for the rest of the exams at other points in the semester. These syllabi should be crossed with each other to ensure there are no overlapping exam days and, preferably, that they do not all have exams in the same week. 

If navigators—or another suitable administrator—took the time to review the schedules just for all engineers and pre-health students, it would clear up a sizable number of conflicts. Approximately 30% of the student population is studying engineering, and a sizable amount of us are pre-health students. Merely addressing academic schedules for these students could make a tremendous difference in the health of the student body. 

However, we can’t forget about the other majors at CWRU, especially within the humanities, that are all too commonly overlooked. These students have equally stressful weeks deserving of relief. Again, the schedule for the core classes for each major should be reviewed to ensure no major overlaps in due dates. 

CWRU needs to take the extra time to review syllabi to ensure students are not going through cycles of not sleeping, exercising or eating properly in order to try to excel in academics. However, we can’t expect that these syllabi reviews will catch all assignment overlaps. As such, the university should also communicate with all professors to ensure they are not penalizing students for asking for extensions. And these penalties not only include grades, but also the way professors treat said students. In doing so, CWRU could become a leader in higher education, promoting students’ well-being over unbearable exam weeks. 

If the university effectively made these changes, it would undoubtedly improve campus culture to emphasize collectivism over toxic individualism. That is, we could do away with blaming students for their circumstances. We could normalize getting a good night sleep during midterm weeks.