Posts Tagged ‘Exams’

After a brief lull as the eye of the storm passed overhead, grading continued early this week. Now that the storm is passing it can be confirmed that a record amount of grading has taken place in the past week. This storm included:

  • 80 papers from three courses
  • 60 traditional exams from two courses
  • 20 take-home exams from one course
  • 30 research proposals from one course

The total? 190 assignments/exams graded in 14 days. While the weather can be unpredictable, I hope to never find myself in this sort of storm again!

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The bloody exam

While I don’t recall ever using a faux British accent to complain about exams (I have used other things that started with f…), this year I had the distinct pleasure of an exam that was literally bloody.  During the exam, I noticed a student getting a tissue out of her backpack, which was not particularly peculiar.  Instead of blowing her nose, however, she just held the tissue by it.  Glancing in her direction a few moments later I could see that part of the tissue was bright red.  While her dedication to the exam was commendable, I quickly walked over to her and told her that she was free to leave the classroom (likely in a tone that implied that I strongly preferred that she do so).*  She returned a short time later and continued her exam with a tissue nearby.  When grading the exams I realized that there was, in fact, some blood on the exam.  Thankfully, there wasn’t a lot of it and it didn’t obscure any answers.  Regardless, I think that I prefer my exams to be bloody in the British sense.

*I don’t have any sort of “no leaving the classroom during an exam” policy, but I think that hiding a capsule of fake blood in a tissue, holding it to your nose, and breaking it would be an effective way around such a policy if a student had a friend with all of the answers waiting in the restroom.

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After the aforementioned second rash of first-exam failures, scores on the second exam were significantly improved.  This fact alone does not confirm the wait-and-see approach but I can confirm that at least one student has taken this approach to my class.  When asked what she did after the first exam to improve her performance on the second exam she stated, “I actually studied this time around.”  Of course, when I asked after the first exam how long she had spent studying she reported a study time of three hours, so there is either a difference between “studying” and “actually studying” or my methods of data collection are returning invalid results.  I suspect the latter.

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After another rash of first-exam failures, this time in another course, I have identified what I am calling the “wait-and-see approach to exams.” In this approach, students view the first exam as an unknown entity.  Because they do not know what to expect from a professor in terms of exam style, difficulty, and grading they apply minimal effort in their studying.  “Maybe,” they think, “this professor writes easier exams and grades more leniently than all prior professors, in which case spending three or even four hours studying would be a monumental waste of my time.  By waiting to see how the first exam goes after 10 minutes of studying I can minimize my effort and in the event that it is unwarranted.”  (An alternative approach would be to over-study for the first exam in the event that a professor writes harder exams and grades more stringently than all prior professors.  I suspect that these students exist in much smaller numbers than their wait-and-see counterparts.)  Alternative explanations for this performance are that “they just don’t care,” that “Dr. Smith doesn’t show enough videos to keep students interested for an entire 50 minutes,” that “like this year’s East coast snowstorms, this class of poor students is an anomaly and is likely never to be seen again,” and that “Dr. Smith is a poor professor.”  The final option has been rejected in the interest of mental health.  Besides, at least I’m trying.

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I have taught Introduction to Sociology at a large university and a small commuter campus, during the spring, summer, and fall, with classes ranging from 15 to 65 students.  In each of these settings I followed the same basic format and in each of these settings I achieved what I considered to be success based on the performance of my students.  As a result, my intro class was the least of my worries heading into my first semester at a liberal arts school.  Then 1/3 of my intro students failed the first exam.

Beyond the fact that I try to maintain an even temperament, the fact that I had successfully taught intro in all of those different places is probably what prevented me from freaking out (I guess that point number 3 here is important to note).  As a result, I ended up writing the performance of my students off as another symptom of their freshmenness.  Of course, blaming the freshmen will not get you very far if you don’t work to help them.  Before the second exam I spent quite a bit of time going over student answers to questions on the first exam, making my expectations even clearer, and talking about studying techniques.

In the end, students did much better on subsequent exams and their final grades were only slightly lower than in all of those other settings.  Without my teaching experience I don’t know if I would have blamed myself or my students.  As usual, the reality was somewhere in between.

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