6.001 offers untimed tests
By Reuven M. Lerner
A small number of students have been allowed unlimited time to complete tests in Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (6.001) over the last few years as part of an unpublicized program designed to help those who have difficulty taking tests.
According to one of the subject's lecturers, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Harold Abelson PhD '73, there are a few students in 6.001 for whom it is "pretty obvious that their performance on the tests doesn't match what they know." Such students who complain to their teaching assistants about test lengths are offered a chance to take the test in an unpressured, untimed environment, he said.
Between one and three students take the untimed tests each term, Abelson said. He added that instead of telling students about the possibility of taking an untimed examination, TAs wait for students to approach them about any problems they might be having.
A sophomore currently enrolled in 6.001 who was allowed extra time on the second test said she learned it was possible to take untimed tests only when she heard about another student who had been granted that privilege. The student said her TA asked that she not tell other students about the arrangements.
Extra time on tests would certainly help some people, she said. "The test isn't especially hard; you just have to plow through eight problems."
Untimed exams are not available for everyone, Abelson said. "Nobody likes exams, but there are people who have almost physical problems. . . . They really do know the stuff, but they space out for one reason or another. We try to get these people to go to the medical department," he continued.
The sophomore who took the untimed examination was never given such advice, but said this might be due to her particular TA more than anything else.
Some want more publicity
The program's most controversial aspect is the fact that students are never told the opportunity for untimed tests exists.
"Different people need different testing situations in order to do well," said Associate Dean and Section Head Travis R. Merritt. However, he added, "if it's going to be an available option, the students in the class ought to know about it as an option."
Abelson was surprised to hear that other subjects do not give students the chance to take examinations without a time limit, adding that "it would be nice if it were an Institute-wide sort of thing."
Even the sophomore who was allowed to take the test had some reservations. "I don't think it's really fair that some people get to take it untimed," she said. Several students who were doing just as poorly as she was did not have the chance to take the untimed tests, simply because they had never discussed the subject with their TAs, the student said.
"My TA basically told me, `I arranged this for you, so you'd better do it,' " the student said.
An administrator who declined to be named said, "When you allow some people more time than you allow others, it's essentially not fair. On the other hand, MIT is a pressure cooker."
"I know Hal Abelson, and I know he wouldn't do anything deliberately stupid or brutish," he added.
Students who take the regular timed examination should not worry about their grades being affected by the few taking the untimed version. "We don't just throw them into the bin with everyone else," Abelson said. He added that 6.001 has never been graded on a curve, and that the students who are getting the extra time would be unlikely to significantly influence other students' grades in any event. "We do not blindly assign exam scores," he added.
Abelson said weekly tutorial sections are a key ingredient in his being able to determine which students need the extra help. Before a student is allowed to take an untimed examination, the TA must verify that the student understands the material and is simply having problems with the test. "When we go over grades, the tutors have seen this person for an hour every week during the semester."