Do Midterms After Winter Break
By Gracie S.
February 26, 2018
At 9:00 am, January 23, hundreds of bleary-eyed, anxious Westridge Upper School students flood into the gym. With Number 2 pencils instead of cell phones in hand, students prepare to take exams that could make or break their semester grades. Indeed, for many students, the grades on these exams will have a significant impact on their overall GPA’s. No matter how well a student may have performed the entire semester, a single midterm exam is often worth 20 percent or more of one’s overall grade. For many students, a semester of learning is measured by a two-hour test. Midterms at Westridge would be stressful in any event, but many feel that the fact they are after winter break makes matters even worse.
Winter break is supposed to be a time for families to relax, to celebrate the holidays, and to have fun. Instead, Westridge students lock themselves in their bedrooms for hours on end, forego outings with family and friends, and try to absorb as much as material possible in preparation for their upcoming exams. More often than not, according to Upper School students at Westridge, what is supposed to be a festive and happy break from school, homework, and exams is transformed into a midterm preparation nightmare with Christmas music playing in the background.
“I have never felt as if I can fully relax during winter break. [Midterms are] always in the back of your mind and a constant stressor. Coming back from any break, I have always felt as if I am given time to adjust and get back into the swing of things. However, having midterms three weeks after winter break is very abrupt. Many teachers are trying to finish lessons and projects and review information from before break. It is a lot to manage and it is very difficult to finish and prioritize classwork while beginning to prepare for testing,” said Kate C., ’19.
Although midterms are three weeks after winter break, students have trouble adjusting to the school schedule of getting up at the crack of dawn, attending classes all day, and then frantically trying to review months of material in the evening to prepare for midterms. In addition, some teachers continue assigning new homework right up until days before midterm exams, which only increases students’ stress. As the exams approach, the tension rises on campus. Often, the nerve-wracking environment becomes too much to handle, and many girls break down in tears in the library, in the classrooms, and on the athletic playing fields.
“Having midterms after winter break is definitely worse than having them before break. Having them after break results in students having to relearn the material they have forgotten over break. Last year when I took midterms for the first time, I was definitely unprepared. I wasn’t sure when to start studying, and I struggled to divide up my time for each subject equally,” said Natalie C., ’21.
Gary Baldwin, Director of Upper School, explains that midterms have to be after winter break due to the length of each semester. “We do them after a break because we're trying to keep the first semester and the second semester roughly the same length. If we did them before Christmas, then the first semester would be way shorter, and the second semester would be way longer.” Baldwin also understands the stress students are put under. “We don't do midterms until the end of January because we don't want to hit you with them right when you come back from a break. I know that even though they're happening at the end of January, you still do some work for them over the break because you know you are going to have to gear right back up as soon as we come back. And that's a downside. That's one reason certainly that I would prefer to do them before the break, but we would have to change the way we do grades in order to make that reasonable.”
The weeks leading up to midterms become a stress fest and Upper Schoolers increasingly refer to Westridge as “Depresstridge.” Teachers’ offices swarm with students trying to ask the burning questions they did not have a chance to ask during the break. Many students have tremendous pressure put upon them by their families. For others, the pressure is entirely self-imposed. The competition is fierce, and the culture of stress also influences the middle and lower school students, who have never experienced midterm exams. Freshman are horrified by what they see as their looming futures. “I saw people crying inside the gym after the math midterm ended,” said Jessica T., ’22.
It is well-established that people do not perform their best when under pressure. According to the American Test Anxieties Association, students with test anxiety perform 12 percentile points below the students with less stress. “It is a very stressful time for everyone. I’m sure there is a similar tone at any other school. Midterms are often a significant portion of our grades and it’s very nerve-wracking to know that an entire semester’s worth of information is going to be condensed into a two hour test,” said Kate C., ’19
Many students are not able to demonstrate their knowledge or mastery of a subject when stressed out, exhausted, and under time pressure. Some teachers also recognize that the emphasis put and the time spent on midterms may not be the best measure of learning or means of teaching. “There are so many ways of demonstrating understanding, and we devote significant time to administering midterms when there's certainly the possibility that we could use that time more effectively for teaching,” says Jim Holland, a faculty member of the English department.
It is not only the students who feel the tension. Teachers are swamped trying to grade homework, tests, and papers and then calculate class percentages for each student headed into the midterms exams that they must prepare. On top of that, teachers meet with anxious students for ongoing and last-minute exam advice. Then, after the exams are taken, teachers must quickly and carefully grade them. The final semester grades come out a week after the midterms are finished. Unfortunately, teachers have less than one week to grade the midterm exams and release a grade for the semester. The teachers of classes who take midterms last in the schedule have the shortest amount of time to grade them.
“We have a rotation that we figured out [for] … 10 years for the sake of the teachers, because if your exam is last, then you have the shortest amount of time to get everything graded and get your grades calculated and get your grades submitted. We rotate the departments where they fall in the schedule so that every few years somebody has to be last and somebody gets to be first and somebody has more time and somebody has less,” says Gary Baldwin.
Midterms after break would ensure that a full semester’s worth of material would be fresh in the minds of the upper schoolers when they sit for their midterm exams. It would also grant students better access to teachers instead of having to review entirely on their own and then engage in a mad dash to their teachers for face-to-face help upon return from break. Moving midterms could also potentially affect the teachers who struggle to grade tests in time to issue semester grades. And finally, scheduling midterms before winter break would create an imbalance between semesters. For now, the administration has acknowledged the stressful environment during midterms, but as in many things, there is no easy solution, and midterms are no exception.