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I'm a course instructor and was finalizing my syllabus when I hit a bit of a wall and would love to hear the community's input. If you're teaching a class that meets twice per week, do you prefer to hold the exam on the earlier meeting time, or the later one? (E.g. if you have a Tuesday/Thursday class, and everything else is held equal, would you lean towards holding it on the Tuesday meeting or the Thursday one?) I can see slight advantages for either, but am very unsure what others' thoughts are. If you're a student (or recently graduated), did/do you have a preference? Does it depend at all on the nature of the exam (short answer vs. essay vs. multiple choice, etc.)?

(Assume, for the sake of this question, that the material, difficulty, class time devoted to preparation, etc. are otherwise identical. If it matters, this is for a social science elective class, where the overwhelming majority of students are juniors/seniors.)

Thanks!

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    I suspect varies a lot on how long it takes to grade papers, when you have free time, the department's expectation for when tests should be returned to students, etc. For a Tues-Thur class I usually gave tests on Thursdays, as I'd have the entire weekend (no classes, no office hours) to get them graded, and thus I could easily find the 4-10 hours (depending on the class) to get them graded by the next class meeting. However, if I gave the tests on Tuesday, it was often difficult to get them graded by the next class meeting. Plus, students would not have HW over the weekend, which they liked! Aug 27 at 13:29
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    The comment by @DaveLRenfro exactly matches my preference and reasons. Let me add that the material to be covered on an exam usually does not include the immediately previous class. So students have a week to study all the material, and they can ask questions about it in the last class before the exam. Aug 27 at 16:12
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    It might be worthwile to specify the country. (For instance, where I studied, exams were almost never scheduled in the time slots of the course.) Aug 27 at 16:52
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    @DaveLRenfro - please don't write answers in the comments. But, I think your answer is a good one; please consider moving it into the answer box.
    – cag51
    Aug 27 at 22:53
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    I do not see any way to answer this objectively. What is best for one person will be awful for another. The exam will presumably not happen in isolation from otehr events, not just in the institution but outside.
    – StephenG
    Aug 30 at 0:39
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I'm an undergrad, and I do have a preference, so I will answer based on the information you have given in the question. But note that there are many other external factors, such as your students' class load on both days and any campus events, that will make a difference.

All else being equal, I would prefer an exam on Thursday.

Students often like to clarify any questions about the course material or the pattern of the exam before it's coming up. This would be more convenient to do on Tuesday when there are only 2 days left for the exam, and hence, I would have covered more material and can ask more questions.

If the exam is on Tuesday, the last class would be on Thursday the week before, which is 5 days before the exam where I would have covered less material, and therefore, I may not be able to clarify all my questions. I could email, but asking face-to-face in a class would be better.

Yes, in an ideal world, I would have kept up with the material since the beginning and should be able to ask questions any time. But students procrastinate.

In conclusion, I would prefer it on Thursday, but since I do not know the true situation of your students, I suggest you take it with a grain of salt. The best way to figure this out would be simply to ask your students. Set up a poll and gauge their opinions.

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    Poll sounds like a good idea. An advantage of Tuesday would be that there could be an exam-debriefing in the last session on Thursday.
    – henning
    Aug 27 at 13:33
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    Ah, yes ... this is another reason I usually chose Thursday. There is a large gap between the last class meeting and when the test would be given. Students often wouldn't begin serious preparation for a test until a day or two before the test, at least if undergraduate, especially early undergraduate. I say "usually chose Thursday" because I rarely had pre-set test days, but rather chose the days roughly 2-3 weeks in advance, often asking students in class if there was a day I should avoid. Aug 27 at 13:36
  • Thanks for the insight--it's very helpful!! I'm a bit hesitant to poll directly for a few course-specific reasons (the roster is still very much in flux, there are a few sections and I need all of them to be on a single day but wouldn't want to override one class's overwhelming preference because the other two mildly preferred the opposite, there will already be several elements of the class determined by poll and don't want to cause decision fatigue, etc.) but generally agree with that approach. Thanks again!
    – AndrewG
    Aug 27 at 13:36
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    Yea, Thursday is good because you can also do an AMA/review on Tuesday (even if it’s not the entire class). Also, as far as a poll, this may be a minority view by I’m generally against that form of democratization of the exam process (and I say this from a recent student perspective) — it’s your class. The preferences are likely to be minor so most people who voted for x and got x will be only slightly happy about it. On the other hand, for the 1 or 2 people who really preferred y and got x, they’ll be annoyed. So skip the poll. If someone needs it on a different day accommodate as needed.
    – Greenstick
    Aug 28 at 0:15
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    Another important point for some students: there are more parties on Thursday than on Tuesday. :) Aug 28 at 0:16
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For my experience, the biggest factor that students will care about is what days do they have exams in their other classes. If the students have two exams the same day, they won't be able to properly study for either of them. Whether you can arrange this or not depends on how similar their schedules are.

E.g. You said you are teaching an upper level social science elective. It may happen then that 80 - 90% of your students are also taking the exact same required social science class. If that class has an exam on a Tuesday, then you should not have your the same day.

Now, it may also happen that your students have completely different schedules. Some have exams on a Tuesday, others have on a Thursday. In that case it doesn't matter that much. Just pick one. Flip a coin if necessary.

To figure this out, you may just want to ask the students what day is best for them and see if there is a consensus or not.

Edit:

@Buffy's point about incentivizing cramming is interesting. I decided to search if there was any research on the effect of time between exams. I found this paper: Devin G. Pope, Ian Fillmore. "The impact of time between cognitive tasks on performance: Evidence from advanced placement exams" Economics of Education Review, Volume 48, 2015, Pages 30-40, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2015.04.002

It is AP exams, not college midterm exams, but the conclusions should transfer I think. Here is the abstract:

Students are often required to perform several mental tasks in a short period of time, and their performance is likely to depend on how closely the tasks are scheduled. We examine this phenomenon in a particular context: Advanced Placement (AP) exams in the United States. We exploit variation in the AP exam schedule from year to year which results in a student who takes two exams in one year having more or less time between the exams than a student who takes the same two exams in a different year. We find evidence that more time between exams results in higher scores, particularly on the second exam, and that this effect varies across different types of students. Our estimates suggest that a student taking two exams ten days apart is 6–8% more likely to pass them both than a student taking the same exams only one day apart.

Here is a relevant quote from the conclusions section:

One could imagine various mechanisms for why more time between exams leads to better outcomes. For example, one possible explanation for our results is simple fatigue. Taking an AP exam is mentally and physically exhausting and it may be difficult to perform at peak ability when taking two exams in close succession. Another possible explanation is that last-minute preparation for exams (“cramming”) is important and more difficult when exams are close together. A third and related mechanism is that when exams are close together, students foresee their possible fatigue or lack of cramming time, and preemptively allocate their energies to just one exam. Our data do not allow us to identify a specific mechanism behind our findings, but may provide some clues. For example, we find that the detrimental effect of temporally proximal exams is primarily associated with the second exam taken. Our fatigue mechanism predicts this effect. The cramming mechanism may also predict this effect, but not so directly. For example, if two exams are close together and a student has to do last-minute cramming for both exams at the same time, this could arguably affect both the first and the second test score. Thus, this evidence is suggestive of fatigue, but cannot rule out a cramming effect

(emphasize mine).

So I would still stand by my suggestion of not having two exams on one day, to avoid mental fatigue of the students, even though it could potentially incentivize cramming to a certain degree.

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    Thanks for the reply--very useful advice!! While I'd generally be fully on board with just polling students, I think that might be tricky this time (for reasons mentioned in the comment to the other answer + the test separates two halves of the course, so its timing impacts several other decisions regarding course flow). Another good point is the potential overlap--I think this is the case for one class (i.e. ~70% of the class is in another), but intentionally picked a different week for the exam to avoid the conflict there. That said, I should probably ask around 1 more time to check! Thanks!
    – AndrewG
    Aug 27 at 13:42
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    Actually, if students study correctly, and you may have to teach them how, having two exams on one day shouldn't matter. If you somehow advantage cramming, then you are doing them a disservice. The worst exam I ever took was the result of cramming overnight and it was open book.
    – Buffy
    Aug 27 at 13:59
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    "If the students have two exams the same day, they won't be able to properly study for either of them." How many days apart must two exams be to be able to properly study for? Aug 27 at 21:53
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    @Buffy One can study well for two exams on the same day, but exams can be draining. How much depends on the length, I suppose. I remember having a day with two 4h exams and, well, I was not on the top of my game during the second one.
    – Anyon
    Aug 28 at 2:25
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    As Buffy said, students should learn how to study, and learn what "learning the material" means (it doesn't mean "remembering it for 24 hours and then forgetting it for the rest of your life"). When I was at university, grade were based entirely on end-of-year final exams - no "homework", no "quizzes", no "mid terms" etc. The final exams were six three-hour papers in three days. It was a perfectly fair system, since it was the same for everybody, and no students complained about it.
    – alephzero
    Aug 28 at 2:58
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I prefer to hold my exams on Tuesday (in your example), as that lets me provide more rapid and thorough feedback. I believe it is of extreme usefulness to provide feedback while the students still remember their thought processes during the exam.

I work hard to get the exams graded quickly, usually by the evening of the exam or the next morning. I can post results within 24 hours.

At the next class meeting (Thursday), I can discuss the exam, provide statistics, point out common difficulties, etc. I'd rather do this bit 2 days after the exam than 5 days after.

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Wednesdays and Thursdays seem to work the best for me as an undergrad

As an undergraduate, I preferred exams on Wednesdays and Thursdays for 2 reasons. First, if I took a long weekend (either take off Friday or Monday), I wouldn't miss it. Secondly, sometimes I'd pick up part time work on weekdays, so I'd study mainly on the weekends - this way I always had 1 class day before the exam to ask questions.

As a TA

I also liked Wednesdays and Thursdays - why? Because it meant I didn't do (as much) grading on the weekend. I've also found students are much less interested in their exam grade on a Friday than a Monday.

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The decision I've made in the math & computing courses I've taught, for about the last two decades, is to give exams at the start of the week. Advantages:

  • This maximizes the amount of time students have to digest material after being introduced at the end of the prior week. (Note that every session has new material; there are no "review days".)
  • Weekly assignments practicing the material can be given in the prior week, received on the weekend (e.g., Sunday night), graded by me that night, and therefore have relevant feedback available to students Monday morning before the upcoming exam.
  • Likewise, online discussion groups can be occurring over the weekend (required in some of my higher-level courses), reflecting the entirety of the prior module, and completed before the exam.
  • Students have maximal time to email me with any questions in the days from end of one week to start of the next (although that's not very frequent for me).

In my courses I tend to have one "floater" day (maybe a lab or optional topic) near the end of the first quarter of the semester, that can be pushed either before or after the first exam, so as to make exams occur on the desired weekday (regardless of when the semester starts).

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    there are no "review days". - I would guess that if you do have a review, putting your exam later in the week would be better, as in justauser's answer.
    – Kimball
    Aug 27 at 23:48
  • "Likewise, online discussion groups can be occurring over the weekend (required in some of my higher-level courses)" I hope I am misreading this and you do not require your students to work in the weekend.
    – orlp
    Aug 29 at 10:15
  • @orlp: I don't; they could do it in advance the prior week; but in practice, none do, and all the work is being done a few hours before the due date Sunday night. Aug 29 at 13:57
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Seems like one of the opinion-based questions, though probably just "not friday" (or other culture-based "not giving a damn" day) would be the rule unless you want to be disliked and then discuss with the students.

Some will be fine with Mondays, some with early mornings and you won't be able to satisfy everyone with the same utility, thus discussion and perhaps even voting or checking with the peers (teachers/lecturers) would do better so the students don't have:

  • overlaps or blocks of just exams in a single day
  • all the week of just exams

Though personally I as a student have managed to do both just fine and depending on the exams even the annoyance was managable.

Probably the worst approach to this from the teacher's standpoint is to be stubborn and not adjust because that will affect both results (which retrospectively people might not care about) and reputation of you personally or the school you represent.

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My most successful exam was held a Saturday morning. I had obtained special permission from the chair or the Dean for that.

All the students were in the right headspace when they came in: no one had rushed from another class before the start of the exam, no one had to rush to another class at the end of the exam.

The result was such a success that there were rumours the exam had been leaked to students before hand.

I did that only one year: the logistics of getting this done (getting security to open an room, getting all the special permissions) turned the experiment into something that required non-zero extra work on my part, especially when the alternative is staying home on a Saturday morning. None of the students complained (they were told well in advance) at the time, but I’m no longer sure no student would complain if I try this scheme again these days.

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This largely depends on whether you have something useful to do with the left-over lesson if you set the exam on the first session of the week. Two factors that will affect this are: (1) whether you want to separate topics by strict increments of whole numbers of weeks; and (2) whether or not you want to have a final "wrap up" lesson that occurs after your last in-class exam.

If you have the exams on the last session of the week then it is simple to separate your topics by increments that are whole numbers of weeks, ending with an exam. This also means that you can end the session with an exam, and there is no further "left-over" class that comes after the assessable parts.

On the other hand, if you have the exams on an earlier session of the week then you will need to decide what to do with the "left-over" session at the end of the week. There are some fruitful things this can be used for, such as a feedback session for the exam (if it can be marked really quickly), or a casual "wrap-up" session for the topic, or just moving on to the next topic (except in the last session of the semester). If you decide to give a "wrap up" session, you need to carefully consider whether this is something the students would want before the exam, or whether it is useful to have a stress-free session that comes after the assessment has passed. The latter gives you some opportunities to have a more general bull-session about the topics, the course, how it applies in the profession, etc., and students can sometimes enjoy these sessions. On the other hand, students may resent being given information about a topic after the opportunity for the assessment has passed.

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  • This is actually the opposite of how it works in my courses. Exams are at the start of the week, and the next session is the start/introduction to a new topic cycle. The bit about a last session after the last exam is not something I've ever heard of anywhere? Probably pretty uncommon. Do you mean the same as a final exam, or something distinct? Aug 28 at 5:45
  • I am assuming that he is referring to in-class tests, since they are scheduled for lecture times.
    – Ben
    Aug 28 at 8:35
  • That doesn't answer my question. Aug 28 at 14:14
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    @DanielR.Collins I've seen plenty of people schedule a review session before the final exam where they answer questions about the material, do some more examples of tough problems, etc. Aug 28 at 19:59
  • @DanielR.Collins: In-class tests would be distinct from the final exam.
    – Ben
    Aug 28 at 21:11
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I've done a lot of this with large groups of trainees in the military (service schools). Ideal, is to do it Friday morning, then work hard and grade it and post results (students WILL stop by!) FRI afternoon. Given your TUE/THU choice, I would opt for the THU. Let them unwind over the weekend. Cry or celebrate or whatever.

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    I don't think letting students expect to get results in less than 8 hours is a good thing to set for yourself. Aug 27 at 22:04
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    Publicly posting results doesn't seem like a good idea either. Aug 27 at 22:07
  • @MishaLavrov, posting can be done anonymously in a number of ways. They can even be emailed to individuals.
    – Buffy
    Aug 28 at 19:38
  • @AzorAhai-him- I had an instructor who graded and commented on 300 papers from a 3 hour exam that finished at 9 PM, and they were done by 8 AM the next morning. I've also had another instructor's results come back 6 months after the test. There's a huge range. Being known for getting your grading done fast but properly, is a positive attribute.
    – Criggie
    Aug 30 at 1:27
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    @criggie Nobody should grade 300 papers overnight. Aug 30 at 12:35

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