Do In-Class Exams Make Students Study Harder?

Research suggests they may study more broadly for the unexpected rather that scour for answers.

Carolyn Thompson / AP

I have always been a poor and panicked test-taker. (I once cheated off the guy next to me at the DMV, only to later discover that we had been given different quizzes.) So it may seem downright baffling that I have returned to college to finish the degree I left undone some four decades ago. I am making my way through Columbia University, surrounded by students who quickly supply the verbal answer while I am still processing the question.

Since there is no way for me to avoid exams, I am currently questioning what kind are the most taxing and ultimately beneficial. I have already sweated through numerous in-class midterms and finals, and now I have a professor who issues take-home ones. I was thrilled when I learned this, figuring I had a full week to do the research, scour the texts, and write it all up. Suffice to say, I was still rewriting my midterm the morning it was due. To say I had lost the thread is putting it mildly.

While there is little recent empirical research on the subject of in-class versus take-home exams, there have been tests on testing, so to speak. Virginia Tech, in 2003, conducted a major study posing the question: “If delayed retention is the objective of instruction, does initial testing of the information aid retention learning better when in class or take home tests are given?” The experiment divided students into three groups. Final results showed that those who had taken an in-class test had performed better and retained the information longer. Students, when not knowing what to expect on exams, prepared more fully. It seems that the in-class group read and studied in a broad manner, while the take-home test group simply hunted for the required answers. Another study, conducted in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1987, gave different kinds of tests to five individual classes in ten universities. The results also showed that the in-class exams generated higher scores due to more thorough preparation.

As I was suffering through my week of anxiety, overthinking the material and second-guessing my grasp of it, I did some of my own polling among students and professors. David Eisenbach, who teaches a popular class on U.S. presidents at Columbia, prefers the in-class variety. He believes students ultimately learn more and encourages them to form study groups. “That way they socialize over history outside the class, which wouldn’t happen without the pressure of an in-class exam,” he explained. “Furthermore, in-class exams force students to learn how to perform under pressure, an essential work skill.”

He also says there is less chance of cheating with the in-class variety. In 2012, 125 students at Harvard were caught up in a scandal when it was discovered they had colluded on a take-home for a class entitled “Introduction To Congress.” Some colleges have what they call an “honor code,” though if you are smart enough to get into these schools, you are either smart enough to get around any codes or hopefully, too ethical to consider doing so. As I sat blocked and clueless for two solid days, I momentarily wondered if I couldn’t just call an expert on the subject matter with which I was grappling, or someone who took the class previously, to get me going.

Following the Harvard debacle, Mary Miller, the former dean of students at Yale, made an impassioned plea to her school’s professors to refrain from take-homes. “Students risk health and well being, as well as performance in other end-of- term work, when faculty offers take-home exams without clear, time-limited boundaries,” she told me. “Research now shows that regular quizzes, short essays, and other assignments over the course of a term, better enhance learning and retention.”

Most college professors agree the kind of exam they choose largely depends on the subject. A quantitative-based one, for example, is unlikely to be sent home, where one could ask the nerdy older sibling to help. Vocational-type classes, such as computer science or journalism, on the other hand, are often more research-oriented and lend themselves to take-home testing. Chris Koch, who teaches “History of Broadcast Journalism” at Montgomery Community College in Rockville, Maryland, points out that reporting is about investigation rather than the memorization of minutiae. “In my field, it’s not what you know—it’s what you know how to find out,” says Koch. “There is way too much information, and more coming all the time, for anyone to remember. I want my students to search out the answers to questions by using all the resources available to them.”

Students’ test-form preferences vary, too, often depending on the subject and course difficulty. “I prefer take-home essays because it is then really about the writing, so you have time to edit and do more research,” says Elizabeth Dresser, a junior at Barnard. Then there is the stress factor. Francesca Haass, a senior at Middlebury, says, “I find the in-class ones are more stressful in the short term, but there is immediate relief as you furiously regurgitate information, and then you get to forget it all. Take-homes require thoughtful engagement which can lead to longer term stress as there is never a moment when the time is up.” Meanwhile, Olivia Rubin, a sophomore at Emory, says she hardly even considers take-homes true exams. “If you understand the material and have the ability to articulate your thoughts, they should be a breeze.”

While I stressed over my take-home, I may have looked like I was discussing the election with friends over dinner, or watching Michael Moore’s new documentary, but the unfinished exam was cluttering my mind and forcing me to fill my head with Excedrin. This is a common challenge. Lots of students agree that take-homes are generally held to a higher standard. “You have more time to worry, and you feel more pressure to strive for perfection,” says Isabel McGrory-Klyza, a junior at Columbia.

How students ultimately handle these situations may depend on their personal test-taking abilities (or lack of them). “There are people who obsess and procrastinate, maybe wait until the last minute, and make it much harder than it needs to be,” says Roger Gould, a New York psychiatrist. “And then there are those who, not knowing what questions are coming at them, and having no resources to refer to, can freeze. “ And then there are we rare folks who fit both those descriptions.

Yes, my advanced age must factor into the equation, in part because of my inability to access the information as quickly. As another returning student at Columbia, Kate Marber, told me, “We are learning not only all this information, but essentially how to learn again. Our fellow students have just come out of high school. A lot has changed since we were last in school.”

If nothing else, the situation has given my son—a college student on the West Coast—and me something to share. When I asked his opinion on this matter, he responded, “I like in-class exams because the time is already reserved, as opposed to using my free time at home to work on a test,” he responded. It seems to me that a compromise would be receiving the exam questions a day or two in advance, but then doing the actual test in class with the ticking clock overhead.

Better yet, how about what one Hunter College professor reportedly did recently for her final exam: She encouraged the class not to stress or even study, promising that, “It is going to be a piece of cake.” When the students came in, sharpened pencils in hand, there was not a blue book in sight. Rather they saw a large chocolate cake and they each were given a slice.