As a 2000 graduate of Davidson College, Angela Dewberry gained an appreciation for Davidson's system of self-scheduled exams. Now, having joined the staff last summer as college registrar, she'll be top administrator for this unique manifestation of the college's Honor Code.
Between December 14 and December 20, Dewberry and her staff will hand out more than 6,800 end-of-term exams to the college's approximately 1,900 students. At most colleges, students in a particular class take their exam in the same room, at the same time, with the instructor present. The Honor Code allows each student to determine when to take an exam, and where in Chambers Building to do so.
Self scheduled exams give us more control over our study time," said Taylor White '13, chair of the Honor Council. "You can take an exam that requires a lot of studying towards the end of the week, and get less challenging ones over with earlier. You can also space out your exams rather than having to face them close together."
There is one morning exam period and one afternoon exam period per day during exam week. When ready, students report to the lobby of Chambers Building and request the exam they want to take. Registrar's office personnel have pre-sorted all exams in envelopes organized alphabetically by professors' names and course number. The 25 student members of the Honor Council and Student Government Association representatives help registrar's office employees distribute the exam envelopes.
Students may take exams in their choice of about thirty classrooms in Chambers building, but are on their honor at all times not to cheat. They are not allowed to have cell phones or backpacks in the building, but may wander the halls as they wish during the three-hour period. They can also bring along water, snacks and good luck charms.
Assurance of proper distribution and handling of exams is guaranteed through receipts. Students sign a receipt when they pick up an exam, and receive a receipt when they turn in their envelopes. When professors pick up their exams from the registrar, they also sign a receipt confirming that the exam is in their hands.
The self-scheduled exam process was initiated at Davidson in 1971. As a student, Dewberry liked the flexibility the system affords. "I'm definitely more of a morning person," she said. "I would schedule all of my exams for the morning sessions, one per day, near the beginning."
She also had a favorite classroom on the second floor where she liked to sit next to a window. "It's little rituals like those that I found comforting, and that made exam time less stressful," she said.
Dewberry said her staff is there to help students through the process. "Students should also know that if something out-of-the-ordinary, such as a panic attack, happens during an exam, they can feel comfortable coming to the exam center. Many of the exam administrators have been here for thirty years or more and have helped students work through pretty much everything."
Dewberry also emphasized the importance of having Honor Council and SGA members involved in the process. "It reminds students that they're committed to their peers when it comes to upholding this community of trust," she said.
White, the Honor Council chair, said self-scheduled exams teach students to take responsibility for their commitments. She said, "In the real world no one plans your work day or your commitments for you. You plan them and prepare for them yourself."
As a practical matter, White suggested that students take at least one exam either on the first or second day. "It's better than waiting till the last minute to stress out about all your exams, and it'll give you confidence," she said.
Dewberry adds that self scheduling teaches students to trust others from the outset instead of mistrusting others until they prove themselves trustworthy. "We can't even attempt self-scheduled exams unless we start from a place of trust," Dewberry said. "Even though people make mistakes or may intentionally make a poor decision, we want to deliver the message that everyone makes mistakes, and you can recover from them."
Davidson's Honor Code states that "Every student shall be honor bound to refrain from cheating (including plagiarism). Every student shall be honor bound to refrain from stealing; from lying about official college business. Every student shall be honor bound to report immediately all violations of the Honor System which come under his or her observation."
To reinforce its importance, each first-year student signs their pledge to uphold the Honor Code as part of orientation activities. Those signed statements are framed and displayed in the halls of Chambers as a constant reminder of student commitment.
According to White, the number of cheating violations during exam time isn't higher than at any other difficult time in the semester. The college's Honor Council adjudicates an average of about a dozen Honor Code cases each year, mostly concerning accusations of plagiarism.