Opinion: NYU should do away with in-person tests

As the pandemic continues, many classes continue to require students to take stressful, ineffective in-person tests. NYU should shift away from traditional test-taking to alternative assessments like take-home tests and projects.


Manaal Shareh

After three virtual finals seasons, many NYU students find themselves struggling to transition back to in-person tests. Some NYU classes have continued to allow students to take their exams home, but more classes should shift from traditional in-class tests to take-home tests or projects. (Photo by Manaal Shareh)

Camila Ceballos, Staff Writer

With finals around the corner, many NYU students are used to being exhausted by an endless barrage of tests. After three semesters of virtual exams, the university should permanently replace in-person tests with take-home assignments and projects.

March 2020 brought a halt to in-person test-taking for nearly a year and a half. In lieu of traditional testing, most students had the option of turning in at-home tests or class projects that afforded more than a 75-minute period to demonstrate their understanding of course material. Following the return of in-person learning, many students have been forced to endure the stress of in-person testing once again. 

Though grade calculation methods vary between classes, tests typically play a major role in a student’s final grade. Though NYU eliminated the standardized testing requirement for 2021-22 admissions, current students are still expected to demonstrate proficiency by performing well on in-person tests.

These tests, however, are not an effective tool for evaluating student understanding. As a recent study demonstrates, taking tests generates cortisol — the chemical responsible for stress — because of their high-stakes nature. Higher cortisol levels are correlated with lower performance levels, meaning that traditional testing formats are fundamentally flawed when it comes to assessing students’ learning. Moreover, tests don’t accurately measure how well students understand course material — just as people have different learning styles, they also have different ways of demonstrating their learning. Conventional in-person testing really only evaluates test-taking skills.

“I have never enjoyed giving exams because it encourages students to perform rather than learn,” CAS chemistry professor Bart Kahr said. “This is not the best way to capture someone’s imagination. Good students have learned to perform, but I am not sure that such students are best prepared to make art, design an experiment or reinvent our social fabric, and we really need students for precisely these jobs.”

It’s worth acknowledging that tests are a traditional way of assessing mastery of course content because they require students to show knowledge without the help of outside sources like notes, books or the internet. However, they fail to account for the various ways that students can apply and demonstrate their learning on a more critical level.

Some NYU classes have continued to allow students to take home their exams, a policy that should be implemented in more classes.

“Take-home exams have helped me with the transition to college because I studied online for more than a year,” LS first-year Lea Yael Setton said. “I was comfortable at home with my notes available, and I could concentrate so much better. Everything changed so fast to in-person test taking, and there wasn’t a proper transition.” 

NYU must commit to shifting from traditional in-class tests, such as midterms and finals, to take-home tests or projects.

“As an exam giver of several decades, I have often felt complicit in something I didn’t quite believe in,” Kahr said. “Projects and independent study are more memorable experiences than exams.”

The education system cannot remain stagnant with its methods. As the world evolves, the education meant to prepare students for it must adapt accordingly. Amid such extenuating circumstances as the COVID-19 pandemic, the ways we evaluate learning need to be more critical, more creative and less stressful.

As a school that prides itself for being on the cutting edge of cultural developments, NYU needs to abandon the unnecessary stress and dubious benefits of traditional testing.

Contact Camila Ceballos at [email protected].