I am, as it happens, done grading. But I need to express my concern (OK, bumfuzzlement) about something I saw quite a lot of on the final exams I was grading.
You may recall that I let my students prepare a single page of notes (8.5″ by 11″, front and back) that they can use to help them on their exam. Sadly, not all uses of such an officially sanctioned cheat-sheet end up being helpful. Imagine the following exam question, which the students are asked to answer in a few sentences:
Give van Fraassen’s definition of “observable”. Then, using this definition, classify each of the following as observable or unobservable: an electron, a dinosaur, and a unicorn. Explain your classification.
Ideally, the exam-takers would read the question, think about what it’s asking for (and what they recall about how van Fraassen draws the line between observable and unobservable), and then consult the cheat-sheet to see if they included van Fraassen’s definition of “observable” on it. (For those playing at home, “observable = detectable with unaided senses”.) Then, they would apply this definition to the classification of an electron, a dinosaur, and a unicorn and explain their reasoning.
What is less ideal is writing down (what I can only hope was) every single word they wrote about van Fraassen on the cheat-sheet, including a whole bunch that have no bearing whatsoever on the exam question that needs answering, and managing neither to give van Fraassen’s definition of “observable” nor to classify an electron, a dinosaur, or a unicorn as observable or unobservable.
Folks, I want to be able to give you partial credit, but you have to meet me halfway and at least read the questions. Thinking while using those cheat-sheets might also help.
If I didn’t have eleventy-dozen cookies to make, I’d have half a mind to sit down and write the next term’s final exam tonight. My hunch is that, on an exam where the questions focus on the same small set of examples from the perspectives of different philosophical views, a few more student might recognize on the fly that just transcribing their cheat-sheet notes on X is a bad strategy — because without reading the questions for anything deeper than the name of the philosopher, or philosophical view, or key example, they’d end up transcribing the same content for multiple questions. After dumping the same cheat-sheet data for the third time or so, you’d start to wonder how it could be that the exam was asking the same question three times, right?
I’m not out of bounds in giving exams that require thinking, am I? I mean, that’s what the coursework is supposed to be fostering here. Having the answer somewhere in your notes is useful, but being able to recognize what it takes to answer a question adequately it even better.