October 29, 2013

Free to fail

While high-stakes American exams put pressure on students to succeed in one sitting, the Italian alternative is worse.

We have now left that nice, fun period at the beginning of the quarter and are entering those dark weeks when midterms and papers are due, and even more important exams and papers are looming menacingly on the horizon. It’s getting to the point where we can’t pretend that those are “future-me problems,” as they would say in How I Met Your Mother. They are present problems, and, oh dear god, what have I spent the last three weeks doing!

But despite how terrible this feels right now (for me and everybody else), be thankful for our stressful university. In the end, there are some real benefits to this loss of sleep when compared to the Italian exam system.

First, in Italian university, one can take an exam multiple times. A student can fail an exam, get an unwanted grade, or decide to not even take the exam. Unless a student decides to accept the grade on an exam, there will be no record of it. After taking a course, a student has three years to take the exam as a many times as it is offered (sometimes there is a requirement that students wait a certain amount of time between exams).

This sounds great in theory. But in practice? Not so much.

For example, a student could be stuck taking biochem exams for three years rather than just finishing the course sequence in two or three quarters. Three years of continuing agony and struggle! This could prove particularly problematic for the students among us who feel the need to meet certain minimums. With the opportunity to retake exams, some of us would get stuck in the cycle of taking an exam over, and over again waiting to get that elusive A.

But even for those of us who are satisfied with a passing grade, this system still proves problematic. Giving students the opportunity to take an exam multiple times removes the pressure to study and pass on the first one. No matter how motivated a student is, not having to pass the exam on the first try completely changes the psychology of studying for and taking tests. There is always going to be that one exam that a student doesn’t study for because she decides to go out for a friend’s birthday or because she simply wants see what the exam is like before taking it.

This raises a third problem: Students typically take much longer to graduate in Italy than they do in the U.S. I remember my roommate in Italy being completely shocked  that I knew the exact day I was going to graduate—barring unforeseen circumstances—the day I entered college. The fact that students are identified as the class of 2014 or the class of 2017 means that the University is sure that the majority of us will graduate in four years. And most of us do graduate in four years—or even fewer.

But in Italy, this is not the expectation. The ability to delay exams and courses means that students are frequently fuori corso—not on track to graduate on time. Because it is so common, students at times even plan to be fuori corso during their first year. Imagine being stuck in college for seven or more years!

In fact, no matter how hard this is to believe, our crazy, stressful university system affords students some protections. The administration and individual professors have a vested interest in students passing their courses. An American professor can make the exam average a C, but the professor cannot fail every person in the course. American professors curve their exams to make sure that the majority of students pass. This system does not exist in Italy. A professor can fail each and every one of her students when she offers the exam. During my time in Italy, I heard of some instances when only a handful of students, perhaps five out of a hundred, passed an exam. Sometimes, no matter how hard a student studies, the professor creates expectations that students are unable to meet.

Another protection given students at American universities is in the grading. There are few courses where the entire grade depends on one exam or one paper. Oftentimes, there are problem sets to monitor students’ progress, ensure that they understand the material, and give them credit. There are midterms that periodically check understanding of the material, expose students to the testing methods, and count for part of our grade. Sometimes, we even get credit for class participation! For particularly difficult courses, there are TAs, discussion groups, midterm review sessions, meetings with professors, study groups, and more. These are all ways that the University ensures that we will not reach that final exam and fail.

So although it may seem as if you are destined for doom, fear not. Because here, many people and institutional mechanisms have a vested interest in helping you succeed.

Noelle Turtur is a fourth-year in the College majoring in history.