The Students of 1984 who Refused to Write Their Exams – and Got a Zero!

   In 1984, thirty-six of Scarborough Colleges’ sociology students enrolled in SOCB24F: Sociology of Education; Primary and Secondary Levels, refused to write their end-of-the-term exam which would make up 30% of their final mark (Donlevy, 1984)! According to the students, to comply with writing an exam meant going against everything they were taught by their course instructor – Dr. John Lee (Donlevy, 1984). In the words of a former student, “it was a direct contradiction with the principles we had been presented with in the course” (quoted in Donlevy, 1984). Indeed, Lee confirmed this in class by stating that “exams are irrelevant to the learning process,” and further described them as a “vomit theory of education. You cram someone full of information to have them regurgitate it on a piece of paper and then a professor sorts through it and comes up with a mark.” (quoted in Donlevy, 1984).

     Lee was no ordinary professor (Donlevy, 1984)! He was well-known, quite infamously, for publicly voicing his criticism about the ways in which the College operated. For instance, in its early years, when the College decided to operate as a remote, satellite campus, an administrative decision was made to televise its lectures, based on the assumption that it would be cost-effective — Lee rebutted (Lee, 1971). He argued that given the limited number of enrolled students, and the heavy cost of equipment, the College would not in fact save money (Lee, 1971). Prepared budgets for television and broadcasting teaching facilities were estimated at a staggering $2,447,900 for the 1964 year (Lee, 1971). But Lee’s primary concern was not budget, but rather the students, and conducted a study with those who took part in such televised lectures to understand if they found it conducive to their learning (Lee, 1971). Based on student responses, Lee found that the televised lectures were not entirely successful, as most students reported they had difficulties maintaining concentration (Lee, 1971). As one student stated, “after staring at the TV screen for half an hour without a break, your eyes get tired, you lose interest, and you stop taking notes. More concentration is needed just to listen” (as quoted in Lee, 1971, p.g 89). Another student, had a different concern, “why doesn’t the professor get off the screen and illustrate his points? Anyone would think they’re star-struck or getting paid for screen time” (as quoted in Lee, 1971, p.g 89). Overall, Lee summarizes his findings by stating that “you do not reach more people in a large class by TV – you lose more through failure to go to classes, disinterests in watching ‘canned’ professors” (Lee, 1971, p.g 89) and that “the undergraduates disliked the impersonal use of television, lack of feedback, and poor pacing” (Lee, 1971, p.g 95). 

      All thirty-six students signed and forwarded a petition to the colleges’ administration informing them of their decision to not write their final exam on the basis that exams were “irrelevant” (Donlevy, 1984). However, as you may have predicted, the administration was not keen to grant students an exemption – but not for the reasons you might think (Donlevy, 1984; Byers 1984). The Associate Dean at that time, Micheal Krashinsky, stated that the issue was not about the students writing an exam or not – as many professors choose not to assign one for their classes (Donlevy, 1984; Byers 1984). Rather, the issue was that an exam had been assigned and scheduled with the College and it was being cancelled at the last minute (Donlevy, 1984; Byers 1984). Additionally, Krashinsky feared that to grant an exemption to these students would create an undesirable precedent and could encourage future classes to do the same (Byers, 1984). It would, as he described, “wreak havoc on the educational system” (quoted in Byers, 1984). Lee disagreed, he believed that the campus ought to practice democracy when interacting with students, and that professors should abandon their habit to behave as “little dictators” (as quoted in Byers, 1984).

     Regardless, to prevent such “havoc,” the College notified students that if they did not write the exam, they would receive an automatic zero (Donlevy, 1984)! A zero, warned the university, would mean failing the course, and thus, lead to difficulties in attaining employment (Donlevy, 1984). However, these gutsy students remained unafraid and stood strong on their decision and did not write their exams when the date came — receiving their promised zero (Donlevy, 1984). 

     However, the students did not need to be upset for long! Two weeks after receiving failing marks, the College decided to grant all thirty-six students a passing grade for the course (Josey, 1984)! Phew! Lee was so inspired by his students that he began to advocate for a complete abolishment of exams on the campus (Josey, 1984). However, while the story ends on a happy note for his students, it ends quite cryptically for him (Byers, 1984). According to Josey, reporter for the Toronto Star, when asked if Lee would face disciplinary consequences for his actions, Krashinsky is quoted as saying that that it was “not for me to say” (quoted in Josey, 1984) 

Works Cited: 

Byers, J. (1984, January 11). “Students’ Refusal to Write Exam Stirs up a Storm”. Toronto Star.  P. A13

Donlevy, B. (1984, January 11). “Students Skip Exam, Face Failure, Unemployment”. The Newspaper. P.1

Josey, S. (1984, January 25). “Students Given Passing Grades After Refusing to Write Exam”. Toronto Star. A19

Lee, John A. (1971). Test Pattern; Instructional Television at Scarborough College, University of Toronto. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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