Adams (1990) was the first to document the crisis in grandmother deaths resulting from
college exams. He discovered that the rate of grandmother mortality rose 10-20
times just prior to the period of exams, when compared to the ambient mortality
rate at other times.
Adams (1990) speculated that the most likely
of death was inordinate
grandmotherly stress at the thought of her grandchild taking a difficult exam.
This interpretation was further strengthened by findings that the worse students
had been performing in the class, the greater the likelihood of at least one
grandmother dying prior to an exam. Grandmothers probably experience
particularly acute stress at the thought of their grandchildren taking a test
in which they are unlikely to do well.
He also proposed three possible solutions:
1. Stop giving exams. Adams concluded that this would
prevent colleges from evaluating the competence of people
interested in becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers, MBAs,
teachers, etc. Therefore, colleges would no longer be able to
train these and many other professionals. As a result,
the economy would come to a grinding halt. This did not
seem to be a good idea.
2. Only admit orphans to college. This would be a good idea
for the paucity of orphans.
3. Have students never inform their families that they are in
This would work if feasible. Students could tell their families
they are going off to work (if they live at home), or join the
armed forces or a religious cult (if they live on campus). The lack of income,
however, might eventually become noticeable in the first case.
Joining the armed forces or a religious cult would seem to have
more potential to work as an enduring deception. However,
both options would likely stress grandmothers at least as much as
college exams, so that it is not clear that either would lead to much
net reduction in premature grandmother mortality.
Click here to see Adams (1990) original research report.
Because all three of these interventions seem
crack research team designed something altogether different and
workable, and which has none of the flaws of Adams' three
Over the last several years, we have instituted the following intervention,
designed to reduce the frequency of premature grandmother mortality.
Students are informed that, should they miss a major multiple choice
exam, they will have an opportunity to take the brutal essay makeup.
The means on this test typically range from F-D, whereas the
means on multiple choice test range from about C+ to B.
Grandmother mortality rates with no intervention. The ambient
rate of grandmother death at any time during a semester,
other than the week before a major exam, is about 1/2000 students.
The rate of grandmother death during the week leading up to
a major exam skyrockets to about 1/200. (This means
that, summing over the three weeks leading up to the three major
tests in my classes, approximately 1 of every 200 grandmothers dies).
Results from preliminary trials.
Preliminary trials simply required
students who missed the main exam to take an essay makeup. There
was no warning about its brutality -- indeed, when we first instituted
this intervention, we anticipated that the grades on the essay
would be slightly, but not dramatically, lower than those of the main exam.
Although this preliminary intervention did not reduce grandmother
it did reveal that most students who took the essay makeup performed
extremely poorly. Although speculations on the source of such difficulties
are beyond the scope of this paper, these preliminary trials did inspire:
1) the fearful name of "brutal essay makeup" and
2) the main intervention, which simply involved telling students
that if they miss the main exam, regardless of the reason, they
will have the opportunity to take the brutal essay makeup.
Main intervention results. The
main intervention -- simply
informing students that, if they miss the main exam they could
take the brutal essay makeup -- dramatically reduced the
grandmother mortality rate. Even during the week prior
to an exam, grandmother mortality was a mere 1/1000, which although
still higher than the ambient 1/2000 rate of grandmotherly
death without an exam, is much lower than the 1/200 rate
typically found for most college classes around exam time.
In laymen's terms, we have saved the lives of 4 out of every 5
grandmothers who would typically die during the week leading
up to a major exam.
It is clear that we have developed a highly, though not completely, successful
intervention for reducing grandmothers' risk of death around student test-taking.
Just why this intervention works, however, is not clear. One possibility is that
the thought of the brutal essay make up is so horrible that the main test, by contrast,
seems less threatening, thereby reducing grandmotherly stress.
Another possibility stems from students'
to stay healthy and attend class the day of the test (rather
than take the brutal essay makeup). Perhaps they begin working out at every
opportunity, including with their grandmothers. Because of their increased
physical fitness, the grandmothers become less susceptible to the stressful
effects of their grandchildren's exams.
One thing is clear, though -- we know what does
Simply having the brutal essay makeup is not enough -- indeed,
this intervention was completely ineffective at reducing
grandmotherly death. It was only when students
were informed well in advance about the the brutal essay
makeup that the dramatic reduction in grandmother
mortality was obtained. Thus it is extremely important to the success of
the intervention that students be informed about the difficulty of
the brutal essay makeup well before the first multiple choice exam.
The full and complete reasons why this
so successful may never be known. Regardless, it has been
extremely gratifying to provide such a large contribution to the public
health of grandmothers with such a simple intervention.