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Sarah Rohan: Take me home tonight

By Sarah Rohan, Columnist
Published December 5, 2012

In a Nov. 19 e-mail to Yale University faculty, Dean Mary Miller discouraged the practice of administering take-home examinations to students. According to “Miller discourages take-home finals,” published last Wednesday in the Yale Daily News, Miller’s e-mail, prompted by the recent Harvard University cheating scandal, primarily underscores the time burden of take-home tests.

“We try to help faculty members think about the zero sum of student time,” Miller writes, acknowledging that without the time-cap of an in-class exam, take-home tests often take students much longer to complete.

In late August, reports surfaced alleging that up to 125 Harvard students cheated on a take-home government final, collaborating with one another on essay questions and thereby violating exam protocol. As the school decides how it will proceed, the controversial scandal continues to raise questions over the legitimacy of take-home exams.

With finals fast approaching, the concerns raised by Miller’s e-mail, as well as by the Harvard scandal, resound strongly within our own community here at the University, where take-home examinations are frequently administered.

Miller’s nod to the Harvard cheating scandal seems to consider take-home exams an avoidable opportunity for students to cheat. Ostensibly confirming her concerns, a recent study on college cheating finds that cheating on written work — a common component of take-home tests — occurs at a much higher rate than cheating on traditional exams.

In a poll of more than 64,000 undergraduates, 24 percent of students admitted to “receiving unpermitted help from someone on an assignment” and 42 percent admitted to “working with others on an assignment when asked for individual work.” By contrast, only 8 percent of those polled about in-class exams admitted to “using (unauthorized) crib/cheat notes” and 9 percent to “copying from another student on a test/exam with their knowledge.”

The potential for increased cheating — though a legitimate concern — shouldn’t determine the future of effective and fairly administered take-home exams. As University of Michigan students, we ascribe to an honor code that “prohibits all forms of academic dishonesty and misconduct.” Though exam policies will vary according to professor and class, our obligation to the University’s honor code remains unchanged. A test format should not be altered to anticipate potential violations of that code.

In addition to allowing for the increased possibility of cheating, Miller contends that take-home exams can place additional stress on students as an undue time burden.

Here at the University, midterms and finals are usually allotted for a length of time roughly equivalent to the given class period. So, for a 90-minute lecture class, the final is normally 90 to 120 minutes long. Without an enforced timeframe, take-home exams sometimes ask students for an amount of work which would vastly exceed the allotted in-class time.

Additionally, even if a take-home test does not demand work that necessarily exceeds its would-be in-class time limit, diligent students will often work overtime on the heavily weighted exam. As a result, the take-home exams cuts into time students might use to prepare for other finals.

However, when one considers the countless amount of time students spend preparing for an in-class exam, a take-home test may actually pose less of a time burden. By allowing a student to complete the work on his own time, take-homes can even alleviate student stress.

Furthermore, some privilege the take-home format over traditional exams, deeming them more effective at measuring a student’s command of material. Prof. Scott Lyons, for example, views take-home exams as useful indicators of a student’s practical grasp of class material.

“I consider take-home essay exams to be an important part of my larger assessment arsenal,” Lyons said. “My exams ask students what they know and my essay assignments ask them to do something interesting or useful with that knowledge … the take-home exam serves as a kind of bridge between those two different tasks.”

By specifying an appropriate word count and providing instructions that reflect reasonable expectations, Lyons ensures his take-home exams do not unfairly burden his students. Taking into account these preventative guidelines, there is certainly room, and perhaps necessity, for take-home exams at the University.

Sarah Rohan can be reached at