Despite the Stress, Seniors Endure Exams Regardless of Future Path

Audrey Kelly

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If one is to leave Whitman College to be a salmon fisher, why write an extensive thesis utilizing current theory to analyze sociological phenomena? It is not unheard of for Whitman students to go from being grilled by a panel of experts in the field of geology in April to foaming milk for the perfect mocha at the Colville Street Patisserie in June.

Whitman students embark on thousands of different paths after leaving evergreen Ankeny Field behind, but before they go, every Whitman fourth-year goes through what senior Aislyn Booth calls a rite of passage: senior requirements, which can include any combination of a thesis, oral and written exams.

“It’s like an academic brain workout,” said Booth. “I heard all the seniors complain about it [when I was an underclassman], and now I’m still hearing all the seniors complain about it.”

Both Whitman students and professors attest to the fact that senior requirements are not simply for the complaining of a harried, stressed senior class beset by an unfair amount of fog in January and February.

Rather, senior requirements culminate Whitman academic experiences as well as giving students the life skills, if not the practical knowledge, to embark past the fireplace in the Quiet Room. Associate Professor of Mathematics Barry Balof addresses how the exams that math seniors take are beneficial after graduating.

“If students go on to grad school, they will have broad-based written examinations similar to what we do here. But for jobs, too, it’s valuable to have the experience of having to field questions that aren’t set ahead of time,” said Balof.

Senior exams, theses and projects vary from department to department and are constructed to utilize and test the skills students learned during their time in the department. In some departments, this means designing and researching a project or topic of your choice. In other departments, students are tested on their comprehensive knowledge of their chosen major(s).

Oftentimes, senior requirements are a combination of the two methods of evaluation. In the Department of Mathematics, students take written and oral exams with  problems for which they are quizzed on math problems for which they ostensibly have learned the correct methods of solving. They also have a chosen project second semester for which they do extensive research and cooperation with an advisor and the department.

“This introduces more long-term planning, goal-setting and the challenge of explaining concepts to colleagues who aren’t necessarily versed in [the specifics of] your project,” said Balof.

The requirements for each department are very specifically geared towards what would best address what students learned while majoring in that discipline.

“I like the idea of having orals where you defend your thesis because Sociology is discussion-based around concepts. In class we synthesize readings in discussion, that’s how we’ve learned it, and so it makes sense that that’s what our orals are,” said senior environmental studies-sociology major Perry Anderson. “Plus, sociology is so broad that [doing a thesis] gives you a chance to focus on something you’re interested in.”

On the other side of Ankeny, the Department of Mathematics systematically tests students on concepts that they learned during each course required for the math major as soon as they return from summer break in September.

“It is a hard test, and we do it in September because college code requires [a certain amount of time between failing and attempting a retake.] The vast majority of students pass by the third try. Occasionally, a student might need a fourth chance, which wouldn’t be possible if we did the first round any later,” said Balof.

Each department structures its exams differently and at different points in the senior year. Associate Professor of English Scott Elliott believes that even though very few English majors continue on to study English or American literature, the work that students do during their time at Whitman, especially in preparing for written and oral examinations, gives them a strong basis for any paths they may take after graduation.

“It is our devout belief, bordering on certainty and bolstered by our majors’ success in many fields, that the knowledge and skills English majors gain by reading the best works of literary art human beings have produced in the English language … might teach us about what it means to be a human being on this planet,” said Elliott.

There are departments that use standardized tests, such as the Department of Psychology, which uses the MFT. Then there are less traditionally academic majors in which testing of this type would not be appropriate. Theatre majors do a project that takes a variety of forms: acting, light design, set design, directing or self-designed projects such as writing, directing and starring in a solo performance piece. After the project is complete, theatre students write a 20-page paper about the experience (the research they did for the role/design or the performances). They also sit for an oral exam with three committee members.

“[Our oral exams are] pretty not stressful and the vast majority get distinction. [The faculty’s] goal in an oral defense is to ensure that we can articulate our process as theatre artists, and not to judge our performance alone too strictly … though they also can and do criticize our work. They are looking for us to grow throughout the process [of creating and evaluating our senior project], employ what we’ve learned in the theatre department,” said senior theatre major Tory Davidson.

Though senior requirements have been carefully sculpted over the years to best address what has been learned at Whitman and what may come next, occasionally departments realize that the examinations and projects are not measuring student’s capabilities appropriately. Many departments calibrate how effectively requirements are addressing the academic  goals of the department regularly.

“We hold a departmental discussion about comprehensive exam results every spring when the results are still fresh in our minds,” said Elliott. “We do this with an eye to our stated learning goals and to see if students are responding to the challenge of the exams, as we hope they will, and to see how we might better prepare students for the exams in their preparatory coursework leading up to the exams.”

Occasionally discussions such as these lead to major changes in the structures of exams or requirements. Six years ago, mathematics written exams were just 12 questions graded pass or fail.

“We were seeing an increasing portion of students that were competent in some areas and hurting in other areas, and it didn’t make sense for them to have to take the whole test over again,” said Balof.

Thus, the Department of Mathematics made a cooperative effort to change the exam. Now there are four sections to the written exam, and students can pass sections individually. If they fail any one section, they only have to retake that section and not other sections that they passed.

The Department of Psychology has very recently made fundamental changes to its requirements for graduation during the years leading up to senior year. These changes are reflected in a major change in the senior requirements for psychology majors: A senior thesis project is no longer required.

The written test for psychology is standardized and very similar to the Psychology GRE Subject Test.

“I ended up teaching myself a lot of things from a GRE review textbook that hadn’t been covered in my Whitman psych classes,” said Booth.

In order to cover more of the topics in the senior written examination, next year the Department of Psychology will require its majors to take three of six classes that directly cover material that will be in the examination. Because this means more classes are required for psych majors, the department decided to make the senior thesis class optional. Additionally, this removed pressure from the department to provide thesis advisors for the rapidly growing department and gave more flexibility to double majors who might have thesis projects for their other major.

Booth feels that the change was appropriate, especially because students still have the option to do a thesis, an option which she decided to take.

“It’s not as hard as people think it is. It’s a self-directed project where you get to focus in on what you’ve been most interested in, and it’s really satisfying.” said Booth.

Though the whines of seniors may echo through the walls of every building on campus, and though underclassmen may anticipate the days when they can complain with such abandon and still be respected, senior requirements have their place at Whitman. They represent a rite of passage, a culmination and a crowning success to cap off the challenging loveliness of the Whitman College experience.

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