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.