Wednesday, July 15, 2009

midterm

Just a (orig. AmE) quickie from my lunch break:

Yesterday, during another lunch break (maybe I have lunch too often), I met a student who's at Sussex for the annual International Summer School--which as far as I can tell has just American students, but I may be wrong about that. At any rate, there are a lot of Californian science students wandering around at the moment. She's working with my friend Maverick, who introduced me as "Lynne, whose blog I was telling you about". At the end of the conversation, the student--let's call her Santa Barbara, after her home university--told me she'd be (orig. AmE) checking out the blog soon. So in order to welcome her, I'm going to point out the little communication hiccup I observed in her interactions with BrE speakers yesterday. If you're reading, Santa Barbara, say 'hello'!

SB is doing a psychology study under Maverick's supervision, but she was having trouble recruiting other students from the summer school to take part. Looking for possible explanations, she said to Maverick--"Well, it's midterm." It looked to me like Maverick was not getting the relevance of this, but happily SB carried on to say "A lot of the students are Physics students, and they have a big exam today." I watched the same thing happen again when the Blinder joined our conversation and SB had to bring her (apparently orig. AmE) up-to-speed on what had been discussed so far. She may have said in at least one case "it's midterms". Again, I could see the Blinder not really getting it, until SB continued on about the physics exam.

When SB said midterm she meant an exam or examination period. The reason for this not transferring well to BrE is that midterm examinations are not very common in higher education in the UK. At our university, if we have tests during the term, they're called coursework tests (I'm not marking that as general BrE, since I can't speak for other universities). It's only very recent that students in UK higher education have testing during the academic term. When I started at Sussex nearly 10 years ago, students had their exams at the end of the academic year for all courses--even autumn term courses that had ended 5 or 6 months before. This was frequent examination as compared to the experience of my older UK-educated colleagues, who, 30 years ago or more, had to wait until the end of their three-year degree program(me) to be tested on everything they had been taught.

I expect that when the Blinder and Maverick heard midterm, they thought (BrE) half term--which is a holiday/vacation period in the middle of a term (though Maverick would know that these students didn't get a break--it's only a six-week program(me)). They can tell us in the comments if I'm wrong about that. I've discussed half term before, so please click on the link to see more discussion and discuss more.

Because US students have midterm exams to contrast them with, end-of-term exams tend to be referred to as final exams or finals, whereas UK students (at least at my [BrE informal] uni) tend just to talk about exams.

Here's another exam-related post, in case you're interested.

And so, to conclude my lunch hour: the fruit salad was rather disappointing. Back to the coalface--which is LynneguistE for 'library'.

39 comments:

Ready Reckoner said...

Whereas "finals" in British English means the exams at the end of the final year of university... or at least it did when I studied!

Andy JS said...

You mention "holiday/vacation". I think "vacation" is probably one of the strangest sounding Americanisms for most British people, mainly because the word "vacate" is normally only encountered in toilet cubicles and changing rooms, so it does sound odd the first time one hears it since it doesn't have any connotations with anything pleasant like going on holiday. (For some reason writing about "vacation" reminds me of when my father used the word "derelict" when speaking to an American woman, to describe an abandoned house. I remember she was quite surprised by that usage).

I've always had the impression that "uni" wasn't originally British. If it's not American I wonder if it came from Australia; it sounds like one of the informal contractions that Australians are fond of.

Gemma said...

I was thrown by the use of quickie in the first line. I thought this post might have been a bit racier.

Mark said...

As a British person I would never use "vacation" for a trip, but in formal writing I would be unsurprised to see it used for the period when you don't have to be at university. In particular the "long vacation" for the summer break is something I might actually say, if I was still at uni.

So do American students have six lots of exams a year then? That must take a significant amount of time.

expateek said...

As Gemma said. You had a quickie on your lunch break. Tell us more, please.

lynneguist said...

@Mark: Exams in the US take nowhere near the amount of time that they do in the UK. In the UK, there tends to be an entire month given over to examining (and then another for marking). In the US, there will be a week or two for exams at the end of a course. Midterms are usually given in class.

@AndyJS: Uni is definitely not AmE--we tend to call it college. You're right that it's originally Aus/NZ. But on the 'is it BrE or AmE' criterion, I marked it as BrE because it is used here (A LOT by the present university-going generation).

lynneguist said...

@Gemma and expateek: you're as bad as my students who titter when I say they should be promiscuous in their use of sources for their essays. Or I'm as bad as myself. Depends on one's perspective, I guess.

Kel said...

I sometimes have three or four exams in a subject each semester, be it quarter/midterm/final or just tests called "exams." Final exams, at the end of the term, are held during one week, with a "reading day" on Wednesday to break it up. I've had as many as three exams on a day, each two hours long, which shocks my European friends, who have days in between their exams to cram.

The big distinction, I think, is that in American education a big emphasis is placed on learning along the way-- homework, quizzes, tests, papers, and so on, culminating with a final exam worth maybe 20% of the grade. In most of the rest of the world, the focus is on the one big exam, and lots of students coast until they get there and then learn everything at the end before the test. (Or at least, that's what I've seen, having studied in France and Russia as well as America. Correct me if I'm wrong.)

Rob said...

Most US law school courses use the single test at the end of a semester approach as well.

graciela said...

Do British people not say "checking it out?"

I think Canadians say "uni" though I could be wrong.

lynneguist said...

@graciela: Note that I said it's 'orig. AmE' not just 'AmE'. That means it's a phrase of American origin, which is used around the world by now.

E. Louise said...

I was the last undergrad year at Sussex that tested everything learned in 3 years over the space of one week at the end of the third year - big capital-lettered FINALS week. (That was 1995).
At my uni here in western Canada we usually have mid-terms at least for undergrads but also have a reading week to soften the blow.
I was surprised here that even (post)graduate students do exams.

Elizabeth said...

@graciela
I don't feel qualified to speak for all of Canada (since I'm American), but at my university in eastern Canada, while some people said uni, generally people went with university. Americans were quickly cured of saying college, because people thought you were in CEGEP if you said it.

@E. Louise
And I remember reading week. It was like spring break, but in February, so none of my friends form other schools in the US were off. Well, at least I got my birthday off.

My Canadian exams (both midterm and final) were much like American ones described, though we wrote them instead of taking them. Also they were graded on a different scale than my American high school ones.

Roger Owen Green said...

Is up-to-speed hyphenated in BrE? As a native AmE, looks wrong except as an adjective (up-to-date look, e.g.). A quick Google search seems to be inconclusive.

lynneguist said...

There's much less hyphenation in Standard BrE than in AmE or LynneE, but I've given up on indicating variations in hyphenation (except where I'm doing the post on the subject) because it's just too messy.

I could have gone without hyphenation there, but that was just how it came out when I typed it...

Shaun Clarkson said...

Interesting to hear people talking about having all university work tested at the end of three years in England.
I graduated 22 years ago, and the practice then - which I thought was universal here - was that there were exams at the end of the first year which you had to pass to continue on the course, but these didn't count towards the final degree. The class of degree awarded depended entirely on the second and third years' work. (In my case examined at the end of each year with a 40:60 weighting between second and final years.)

lynneguist said...

@Shaun C: I don't know how it worked back in the day--that is, whether the people who tell me about all the examining being way at the end of the degree were also tested at the end of year 1. But it certainly is the case that in most English universities (I won't presume to speak for Scotland!) the first year has to be passed but doesn't count toward your final 'classification'.

But degree classification is a completely foreign concept to Americans, who simply get a grade point average, which includes all courses/all years, and a transcript with all the details. (Use of transcripts--by employers, for example--is increasing in the UK.) I guess I'll have to blog about that soon. 'Tis the season, after all!

Having just been to an exam board (also a foreign concept for an American) today, I can tell you that one can certainly see the effect of the first year 'not counting' in some students' records!

Andy JS said...

Interesting that hyphenation was mentioned earlier. I'm not certain but I think there are no set rules about hyphenation; you can use as much or as little as you like, it's more like choosing the style you want to write with; of course various newspapers/magazines will have a standard that they like to stick to in their publications. It's nice being able to have a choice, similar to the way you can choose whether to use s's or z's in British English words like realise/realize. I've always thought the z form has a more modern, cutting-edge feel to it, so if you're writing about the latest scientific developments, for example, I think it feels more suitable. In a classic novel, though, I'd prefer the s form. That's just my personal preference, I don't know whether anyone else has similar thoughts. But with hyphenation, maybe the rules are more rigid in America than here in Britain. I'm interested to find out more about it.

lynneguist said...

Search for 'hyphenate' on the blog and ye shall receive.

ros said...

@Kel - not all European students would be shocked at the idea of multiple exams in one day. In fact, most British students up until around 10 years ago would have experienced this throughout their education (and some may do still, I don't know). In my own experience, this was most acute during my (BrE) finals (i.e. at the end of my final year of university, on which my entire degree classification depended. I had three-hour exams on Thurs am, Thurs pm, Fri am, Fri pm, Sat am, Mon am, Tues pm. You just had to know everything you were going to know at the start and then keep going on adrenaline through the rest. Fun!

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Uni is originally Australian, I believe, but now in widespread use here in England (I can't speak to the rest of the UK); certainly it was when my daughter went, ten years ago. I was very confused by her exams - I think she only had one formal exam, the rest was assessments of various kinds, including an extended essay.

Don't Oxbridge students talk about the "long vac" (never "vacation"), pronounced as in vacuum cleaner?

Anonymous said...

I think "Uni" became popular at first along with the success of "Neighbours" on TV. At it's height, the character Mike was attending University, and of course it was always referred to as Uni. That seems to coincide with when the contraction initially became popular in the UK.

Mike was played by Guy Pearce incidentally.

Solo said...

GCSEs and A Levels (for age sixteen, seventeen and eighteen) which are taken at school or college in the UK (school and college being different to each other and not university in BrE) can be two or more hours and you can have two or three a day, it just depends on the subjects.

I always had trouble with 'midterms' because I assumed it couldn't be important if it came in the middle of the term. [Do they even have terms in the US? I thought it was semesters throughout] I don't kow why but exams only seem serious to me if they come at the end of the year. Otherwise they're just a test, which is a minor assessment.

lynneguist said...

@Solo: American universities have either semesters or quarters (usu. about 10 weeks each, like a Sussex term--and which are only 'quarters' if you include the optional summer term, which won't be 10 weeks, in your figuring). Term is used generally to refer to either type of division.

mollymooly said...

Ireland uses "mid-term", not "half term", though not usually in the tragically ironic sense of Seamus Heaney's "Mid Term Break"

Cameron said...

As far as I remember, when I went to uni in Glasgow in 1982, it was already called "uni", and that is long before Neighbours.

Also, it is usually important to remember that there is no such thing as a British education system. Scotland, Northern Ireland and England/Wales all have different and separate systems.

the_sybil said...

From an English (as opposed to Scottish) perspective I would agree with "anonymous" that the contraction "uni" only started to be used after "Neighbours" became popular in England.

And for me (attending uni in the UK about 15 years ago) "Finals" definitely referred only to the exams at the very end of my degree, even though the previous year's end-of-year exams also contributed towards my final grade.

Jethed said...

Kel, that sounds about right to me - I studied in both the US and UK for my degree, and I sat a far greater number of tests in the US. However, I think the longest test I ever sat in the US was two hours, whereas in the UK I wouldn't blink an eye at three or more hours. I was also shocked at first at the informality of testing in the US, with a different format for each class, no exam conditions beyond silence, no external (or internal, for that matter) moderation, lecturers putting in comedy questions... I think that's probably down to the continuous assessment you described taking the focus off the test.
The US has far less emphasis on coursework as I understand it, that is in the form of extended essays, reports or projects - I found myself doing homework every week instead, often consisting only of a question sheet or brief presentation. I think it's mostly down to the difference in attitudes between the countries, with the US approach being heavily guided and the UK independent. That's what allows UK students to coast, with occasional bursts of intense activity, whilst US students are forced to read what they're told every week. My studies in the US were certainly more structured and disciplined than in the UK.

PS Sorry for the massive post, once I warm to a theme it's unstoppable.

Stephen Jones said...

Americans seem to believe in a great deal more testing than Brits do.

Joel A. Shaver said...

Having (Br? Sc? E) invigilated / (Am?E) proctored a few exams now in Scotland, I definitely share a sense of the comparative formality surrounding exams in the UK. I'm always blown away by the tendency of all students to take the full time alotted (3-4 hours sometimes), and not to leave early. By the end of my exams at the University of Washington, in comparison, usually very few students remained. Especially at the more introductory level courses, I'd say the majority probably left during the first half. I really like the word 'invigilate', and hope one day to be able to use it, to general consternation, in America.

Sidetrack, about 'derelict' houses, @Andy JS. 'Derelict' sounds OK to me, but a Scottish friend of mine was once highly amused when I described a building as having been 'condemned', as if it were a criminal awaiting execution.

Ginger Yellow said...

"I think "Uni" became popular at first along with the success of "Neighbours" on TV."

Possibly related to the fact that Neighbours is very popular with students in the UK.

"I'm always blown away by the tendency of all students to take the full time alotted (3-4 hours sometimes), and not to leave early."

Why is that surprising? In my experience, past GCSE you're almost always writing up to the time limit and given that the exams count for so much if not all of your degree, leaving early seems to be a risky strategy. The only time I considered leaving an exam early was my Latin GCSE, which was a combination of translation and composition and which I had completed to the best of my ability about 45 minutes before the end. On essay subjects, however, I was always pushed for time.

biochemist said...

In the late 1960s my UK red-brick [municipal foundation of the 19th C] university had a vaguely intellectual social club for postgraduates known as the 'Varsity Club'- thus derived from the second half of the word. It was the only time anyone used a word other than University - it wouldn't do to refer to it as 'college', which implied further or technical education, nor would we ever use 'school' in the US way. I didn't hear Uni until the 1980s; it has a far more casual and lively feel, reflecting the higher social expectations of modern students....

lynneguist said...

@Stephen Jones: In the American system, more emphasis is given to feedback along the way. So, you have a lot of assessments and try to do better on the next one, given what you learned through the previous ones. In the first-year English (writing) courses I used to teach in Illinois and Texas, this meant a 5-page essay every 2 weeks (around 1500 words). They usually take 2 or 3 other courses at the same time--with less essay writing, I must say. My first-year students in the UK (in a regular, 12-credit course) write one such essay (or a longer one in upper-level courses) per term while taking 3 other courses.

The British system is trying to do better at continuous feedback, but it was already lagging behind the American system (due to its history of end-of-course assessment) when increased pressure on the system (i.e. lots more students) required that assessment be cut back a lot in a lot of places. So, whereas students used to do a lot of unassessed work for feedback at my university, there's a lot less of that now that we have 20 students per seminar group rather than 8 or 12. Now, before the students of today conclude that they're getting the short shrift, I should note that the amount-per-item and means of getting feedback to students has become much better at the same time. It used to be that students who submitted an essay at the end of term got nothing but the mark (and not even the mark if it was averaged in with other marks for the same course module)--now they get the (BrE) tutor's comments electronically and I think also the essay itself. (I've lost track--as the distribution is done by the admin staff, not the tutors.)

With the 'no child left behind' program(me) of the Bush administration, I understand that the US got as testing-mad as the UK already was, with lots of standardized testing at many more points in the primary/secondary curricula than previously. But as far as I know, the US still doesn't have the thing that drives the testing system to be absolutely crazy: parental choice of schools led by (BrE) published league tables that tell you how well as school is doing with respect to these tests. (I think NCLB is linked to school funding, though? Someone in the US now will have to fill me in.) Part of the reason why the US has less choice on which (AmE) public/(BrE) state school you can go to is that British state/public schools include religious schools. So within the zone ([BrE] catchment area were I live, there are state Anglican, Catholic and a few secular primary schools, and when it's time for Grover to go, we'll have to research which ones we'd rather she went to, apply and keep our fingers crossed. There is some element of choice in some (usually urban) parts of the US too--but in my hometown, there were three (now two) state/public primary schools, and you could only go to the one that was nearest your house--unless your parents paid for you to go to the Catholic school.

Ginger Yellow said...

It's my understanding that Oxbridge has a lot more essay writing than most redbricks. In theory, on my Eng. Lit. course we were supposed to do an essay (2k-3k words) every week, on top of Old English translation or similar coursework for optional courses. In practice, that wasn't always the case, but certainly 6+ essays a term was about the norm. None of that actually counted toward your degree, but you got detailed feedback during the tutorials.

Emmet said...

BrE "catchment area" is best translated as "school district" in AmE, I think...although Lynneguist's experience was the same as mine (in New Jersey), recent reforms have changed that somewhat...NCLB allows students (AmE meaning is broader; I'd use "pupils" in BrE here) in the worst-performing schools to transfer to schools outside the district.

Plus, as outside the Northeast (in Virginia and Florida, for example) school districts are much larger, there's the phenomenon of "magnet schools," which are competitive-admission state institutions kinda sorta like the endangered "grammar school" (BrE), but that's another post :)

lynneguist said...

Thanks, Emmet. I was drawing a blank on 'school district'. This is actually a terminology distinction that's in my 'requests' inbox, so maybe someday it'll be its own post too.

Aoife said...

I lived with Americans for the latter two of my three years at Sussex (different Americans on and off, 4 in total, but with great kitchen area usually more hanging around), and hd these discussion a lot.

Most of them felt through the term that they weren't being pushed, weren't having to do any work, and that British Uni was much easier than American college. Then it came to the end of term and they all ended up pulling teary all-nighters and condemning the British system as impossibly hard. This amused me, as the British eductional system had well-prepared me for generally coasting with spurts of work finishing in a mental hubub of essays and exams coming from all courses within a week or so of each other. I wonder if it creates different working styles altogether? I certainly know enough British "grown-ups" in the world of work who leave deadlines to the last minute then rush (successfully) through them as if it were perfectly natural to do so!

As for the Uni/University/College debate... my partner spent his formative years in America, and travelled there a lot to see friends and relatives. Is this why he frequently refers to University as 'school', even at the DPhil level ("I have school early tomorrow" for a research meeting, for example)? Or is it just an annoying affectation? (not that it grates on me every time I hear it, that would be dreadfully prescriptive of me :) )

lynneguist said...

Hi Aoife: We did the 'school' thing back here (and as it's come up again elsewhere--click the 'education' tag for more).

Aoife said...

PS. Speaking of immature sniggers over "quickie" and "promiscous", it triggered a memory that I think might be about the Am/Br Eng divide.

In school we all laughed heartily when an American book we were reading (To Kill a Mockingbird? Or something by Steinbeck perhaps?) made mention of the 'penal system'. Now, I suspect it's of original British use, as OED says it comes from Anglo-Norman, but is it more regularly used in America these days? In my head I hear it in an American accent, alongside 'penal code'. To hear it in a British accent sounds, to me, almost like an old-fashioned use.