Finals in the US

Well this is the first of several, long-overdue posts about the end to my first term at UCSB. I figured that I should work chronologically, so here are some thoughts on the examination process this side of the Pond. I am actually writing this in Santa Barbara Airport- I arrived ridiculously early, and it’s strangely deserted. However, I have the view of the mountains to keep me company, so it’s not so unbearable.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the system here, or haven’t read one of my posts before, the University of California Santa Barbara uses the Quarter System. There are three ten weeks terms, and you change classes for each. Therefore, all your studying, participation, midterms and finals all take place in this relatively short period of time. As a result, the quarters can go by very quickly, and I can personally testify to this. My first quarter has flown by.

However, I have to be brutally honest, the examination methods seem…. favourable for students? I’m not sure if that is an adequate description, but perhaps if I list some of the examination types I have either experienced or heard about, you might get my drift. For all the UK readers out there, keep in mind that this is like-for-like as a third year student..

  1. Multiple Choice:
    We have these in the UK, of course, but no-where near as frequently. Sometimes entire finals can be 50 multiple choice papers. I guess the downside to these questions is that I have heard they can have misleading answers to choose from, or they can be absurdly specific. If a lecturer mentioned what seemed like and aside during the quarter, these seemingly insignificant facts could well form a part of a multiple choice question. Nevertheless, most people I have spoken to have found these quite easy.
  2. Fill-in-the-blanks:
    60% of my American Literature mid-term AND finals were based on this. It required pure memorisation- authours, titles, and basic images or themes in poems or short novel extracts. 40% were essay questions, but even in the final, this consisted of two 1 page essay responses. I had three hours to complete this exam, I doubled the essay response required with 4 pages of essays (any less would have been ridiculous, take my word for it), I took my time and read the questions thoroughly etc, and I still finished in under half the allocated time. I haven’t been examined with such short essay responses expected since high school, and even some of those like my History GCSE were longer than this…
  3. “Take-Home Essays”:
    Now this really was alien. This was an assigned list of questions…. which you chose between… had to respond to from home…. by an assigned date… just like any other essay you might have for homework… except it has a “Take-Home” attached to the name… Why not just call it an essay? I had two classes that had no finals, but the major assessment method in each, as it were, consisted of two 12-15 page essays. That’s fine, I get it. I didn’t have a “Take-Home Essay”, but the only minute difference I can see is the time frame. These essays are set quite late in the quarter (compared to the major ones I had to do) so you have a smaller turnaround to complete them, but they do tend to be shorter: 5 or so pages. 5 pages double-spaced, I should add….
  4. Presentations:
    Ok, so this wasn’t an actual Final examination method for me, so to speak, but it formed part of an attempt to get “extra credit”. Personally, I haven’t really experienced opportunities for additional marks or credit in the UK, so I was interested to see how this system panned out in the States. In one of my classes, you could gain extra credit by reviewing the recent Lincoln movie… I didn’t take the Professor up on this, and elected for another option: presenting the thesis of my long essay. I was able to do this in two of my classes. I had to present my arguments/s, explain some of my sources, discuss any problems I was facing in writing it (the presentation came before the deadline, obviously) and invite any comments or questions from other members of the class. The idea was we could get some feedback and respond to this before the deadline, and in theory this was a great idea. However, when you have various members of the class, looking at wildly different topics, all at different stages of writing the writing process, the results could be mixed to say the least.

Overall, I have to admit that the experience of finals in the US tends to reinforce my conclusion on the general comparison between the education systems across the Pond. In the US, you have a larger, denser volume of work (comparatively, in the 10 week period), which you get through quicker, but it tends to be easier. In the UK, your assessments are less densely packed, but harder and generally longer in length (in terms of essays, exams, etc.) Moreover, the marking system is different: to attain top marks in the US, an A+, you have to be hitting 95%+ in the exams. To get a First in the UK, the percentage is technically lower, 70+ marks secured out of 100. Nonetheless, I feel that receiving a First in the UK is as hard as getting an A+ in the States, if not harder, because the expectations and requirements you have to meet to get a First are very high, even if you only get a red”70″ at the top of your paper, and not a “96”.

I am not necessarily passing judgement or drawing any conclusions on which system is “better” or “harder”… I’ll leave that up to you readers. However, I hope in reading this post, you can understand some of the differences, similarities and comparisons that I have experienced first-hand. If this helps you draw your own conclusions, or offers an interesting affirmation or contrast to your own experience, then all the better.

(Featured Image courtesy of http://www.socialstudent.co.uk/)

 

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