Sympathy for exam-takers (at least, in some cases).

Another dispatch from grading Hell (fourth circle), in which the reader gains some insight into circumstances which evoke my sympathy, and circumstances which do not.

I have this pedagogical strategy where I try to make my students think more than they have to write. One way this strategy manifests itself is in how I deal with case studies on finals exams.

We've spent the whole semester working up case study responses following a standard plan of attack -- identifying the interested parties in the case, the potential consequences for those interested parties if the protagonist in the case follows one plan of action or does something else instead, the protagonists obligations toward the various interested parties (including herself), the pairs of obligations and interests that seem to be pulling in opposite directions, and, in light of all that, what the protagonist ought to do.

So, a couple weeks before the final, I distribute four case studies. The deal is that the exam will prompt the students to provide the interested parties, or the consequences, or the obligations, or the main conflicts (and what to do to balance them) -- one of these pieces of our standard work up for each of the four cases. While preparing for the exam, they won't know which of those they'll have to provide for a given case, so they'll have to think about all of the pieces. However, on the final itself, they're only in for one of those pieces -- and about 25% of the writing of a full work-up -- per case.

These rules of engagement were explained in loving detail on the final exam review sheet I distributed. They were explained on six different occasions in class. Indeed, the exam bolded the specific piece of the work up they were supposed to supply for each of the four cases.

And yet, about 7% of the students provided a full work-up for each of the four cases. (In some cases, this gratuitous writing clearly cut into the time they were able to devote to the other exam items.) And, I feel kind of bad for those students.

On the other hand, the 14% of students who blew the question asking them to define a term I defined in class about once a week throughout the semester elicit no sympathy from me at all. My heart is as a stone toward them.

Go ahead and use the comments to tell me what a horrible excuse for a human being I am.

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...students who blew the question asking them to define a term I defined in class about once a week throughout the semester...

Heart of stone? I get that one, literally.

In the mineral ID classroom, there are cabinets of sample specimens for the students to work on, in order to familiarize themselves with how to go about identifying minerals (can't ID a rock if you can't ID the minerals in it). I emphasize over and over that they must learn the characteristic properties and how to test for them, not just memorize the appearance of the classroom specimens.

I tell them if they just focus on how the classroom specimens look, the test will kill them, because I am going to pull out examples that have very different appearances, but which clearly show the characteristic properties.

The result? They bitch to the other faculty about my 'trick' minerals like....the blue calcite (dun-dun-dun)!

Never mind that it falls into the proper range of hardness. Never mind that it shows the beautiful rhombic cleavage. Never mind that it fizzes if they put a drop of weak acid on it!

Nope. It's pale blue, so it must be sodalite.

Well, I don't know about being a horrible excuse for a human being, but your exam seemed alright. For one thing ,it sounds like you clearly defined what they were expected to know on the exam, and what they were expected to write to adequately answer the question. Definitely the kind of test I look forward to at the end of a class.

I guess not everyone takes tests very well. I know some people who practically hyperventilate worrying about finals, when in any other situation (including potential real-world stress situations) they handle it fine. Our society has made a certain subset of our population terrified of tests and failing grades.

Reading your description of the exam, I have no idea what you were asking for. If 7% of your students can't figure out what you want, your test sucks. Why do you even need this horribly complicated format? This sounds like a classic case of measuring test-taking ability rather than mastery of the course material.

What I did on my finals this block:
Immunology-- 10 questions from 10 profs, 10 points each. I completely did not read half of one profs question. I didnt see it. It was easy 'gimme' points. Just didnt see/answer it.

Micro-- !0 questions from 10 profs, ONLY HAD TO ANSWER 8. This was advertised weeks before, and immediately before the test. Dont turn in 7, dont turn in 9, turn in 8.
I turned in 7. Didnt realize this until I was washing my hair ~12 hours after the test.

LOL! Im not normally a test spaz, but I sure spazzed out this last block!!! (still got an A and a B, though, so have no pity on your students :P )


Perhaps you should ask to see the exam and the final exam review sheet, and THEN make a determination about whether the students should have been able to understand the expectations. Sensible?

FWIW, I had no problem understanding the exam format described above, and suspect that the 7% of students who didn't, just didn't read the instructions too carefully. I'm not sure there's any way to cure people of this habit of starting the answer before finishing the question -- these same people seem to do this for the rest of their lives in email and other written communication.

I don't know about feeling sorry for the 7% who screwed themselves up by writing too much. Competent adults trying to earn a university degree should be expected to be able to read the instructions, shouldn't they?

What's to understand? You have four case studies. There are four parts to a write-up of a study. For the exam, you will do one part for each case - but you won't find out which part until you see the exam, so you have to have thought about all four parts.

Hanging out with the materialists (spenders and scrooges) down there in the fourth circle?

I suppose you may be toying with categorizing yourself in the miserly category, what with all your worrying over grading stinginess!

Some students simply don't read the instructions. This was made clear for me in a first-year biology course, where our instructor included in the instructions for the exam:

"For two points of extra credit, write 'I have read the instructions' on the bottom of the last page of this exam."

Less than half the class got the extra credit.

It seemed pretty clear to me, but I'm surprised only 7% wrote too much.

How many complained how unfair it was that you tricked them, or that there had been no mention of this in class before the exam? (How many of those complainants actually attended every class?) My wife is a mature student doing her undergrad and her classes seem chock-full of those sorts. Mine too - I'm taking undergrad courses `for fun' since I get tuition as a benefit from work.

I remember several of my professors stressing how very important it was that we students read the directions before answering the questions. Oh, and by the way, read the whole question, too. It seems so basic but people always messed it up, every time. This IS something that ought to be learned, even if it has to be the hard way.

I'm with MikeP - I'm surprised that only 7% wrote too much.

One of my communications profs gave us a "pop quiz" one day. We were instructed to read the entire quiz fully before beginning the exam itself. The quiz consisted of a list of things to do, followed by the directive - do not do anything but sit with your arms crossed. The directions we were supposed to ignore included things like "stand up and say your name out loud".

It was amazing how many people said their names out loud.

By CanadianChick (not verified) on 25 May 2008 #permalink