Midterms are the big bad boss of college education when it comes to classes. I know what you’re thinking — finals are by nature more important and more difficult than midterms. However, I find that midterms tend to hold more weight than finals do and can also be more challenging of a hump to get over.
When it comes to midterms, there’s a level of ambiguity that isn’t present in finals. This is even more the case if you have a class where the first graded assignment is the midterm. The professor will give you instructions and, if they’re generous, then you may be graced with a study guide. This will only help so much, though. There’s always that feeling that hangs over your head of “Is what I’ve been studying actually what I need to be studying? Did I miss something?”
It’s like going to war without having any idea what the enemy’s tactics are. You prepare, you get there and then realize that what you prepared for is only somewhat or not at all relevant to what’s on the actual test. And even on the occasions when you are fully prepared, the stress from not knowing what to expect can make you forget important bits of information that you need.
Another element that midterms possess that finals don’t is that you don’t have a complete idea of what the professor is looking for. Sure, you could go online to ratemyprofessor.com and look up your professor to see if she or he is a tough grader or not, but what people say on that website is subjective. You could think you’ve answered a question well enough to receive full credit, but then you get the exam back with a red mark and “-5” next to the question, with “you needed to go more in-depth” written in red ink.
Knowing a professor’s tendencies when it comes to tests is some of the most useful information we have as students, and it can be extremely useful if you have to take multiple classes with the same professor. Students usually don’t know certain things, such as whether the questions are multiple choice or short essay, until they’re handed the exam, but knowing would likely have an impact on how they go about preparing for the exam.
Putting the format of the exam aside, there are some other aspects that make midterms more difficult than finals.
First, there are also usually other things happening in your classes while you’re taking midterms. Finals are called finals for a reason — they are the final threshold for each term, the culmination of all the previous work done in a class. This being the case, students are given ample time to study for final exams. However, midterms are thrown in with the regular class schedule.
Finals week is its own entity entirely. There are no other classes going on — just the exams. When you have midterms, you could potentially have four exams spread throughout one week, and in that same week you could have three classes on a single day. Homework also does not magically vanish like it does for finals. Weekly readings, discussion boards and other homework are still assigned during midterms.
Secondly, and arguably the most problematic, is getting a good grade. If the midterm is the first graded work that is given in the course, there’s a lot of pressure to do well on it. With finals, you’ve already amassed a body of work from the other assignments that you can use to calculate how well you need to do on the final to get a certain grade. You usually can’t do that with midterms, though in the classes where you are given percentages for quizzes, attendance and other things before midterms, there’s a bit of a safety net. But there’s still great emphasis on doing well on the first major exam or assignment. A 50/100 on the midterm is not something any student wants to see.
Midterms also often tend to make or break a student in a class. Doing badly on a midterm naturally puts more pressure on a student to do well on the final, whereas doing well on a midterm relieves some of that pressure. If you can get through the professor’s first exam then you have a good chance of doing better on the next as you’ll know what to expect and how to prepare.
It’s not mere coincidence that people tend to wait until the midterm to decide whether or not they should take the W on a class. Final exams are no doubt important and can be difficult, but midterms are the precursors to the finals for a reason. It’s just like being in a fight: the more you know about the opponent the higher are your chances for victory.