Monday, May 2, 2011

Killer Exams

Professors have to be so careful in this age of political correctness (PC). Life just isn't as much fun as it used to be. Students have to be given written notice, at the start of of a course, of the nature and dates of any assessment. This immediately eliminates the joys of waking them up the class with a "snap quiz"! Unless you want to hear from the Dean.

One of the few weapons left in our arsenal is the final exam. - assuming we're allowed to have one. Of course, we have to supply "practice exams."; solutions to previous, related, exams.; and almost everything except the questions themselves. Actually, I did hear of a course in another discipline where the students were given a set of x questions in advance, and told that a subset, y in number, of them would constitute the final exam. Sorry - I just can't go there.

When I was an undergrad. math. student, in a different educational system, courses went for the whole academic year; there were no term-tests; "assignments" didn't count to the final grade; and then at the end of the year each course had two final exams. - Paper A and Paper B. Three hours each - sudden death - just like double-overtime in a Stanley Cup final. Oh yes, those were the days!

Then, when I was a Masters student in Economics, one kindly instructor was very vague about the format for the upcoming final exam. for the year-long Applied Econometrics course. We were all a bit anxious.
"How many questions will we have to answer?" we asked. 
A thoughtful pause was followed by the response:
"Well, all I can say is that you have a choice of questions."
I must admit that this reply was totally accurate - there were 8 questions on the final exam. paper, and the instructions at the top of the front page read:

" Answer as many questions as you wish. Time allowed - three hours."
Gee - thanks for that! So then it was a matter of strategy. The nature of the questions was such that there was no way anyone could make a decent job of answering all 8 of them thoroughly in the available time. So what do you do? Do you choose, say, four questions, and really show your stuff? Or do you present "sketch answers" for all 8, just to demonstrate that you have breadth of knowledge (if not depth)? Tough call - especially when the clock is ticking already!

Perhaps not surprisingly, I subsequently came to have a very high regard for this particular individual!

That same year there was another course that had absolutely zero in-term assessment, and the end-of-year exam. paper contained just two sentences:
"Write an essay entitled ' ABC'. Time allowed - three hours."

Here, 'ABC' was  simply the title of the course! No pressure - right?

I simply couldn't pull those stunt with my classes - just not PC!

One of the best such stories relates to one of my former Statistics professors. He told the following  following tale to a group of us at lunch one day, some years after he had taught me and we were both faculty members in different departments at the same institution. Also present at lunch was the then Vice Chancellor (i.e., President) of the University, the very economist who had been responsible for the 'ABC' exam. some years before. He'd moved onwards and upwards to higher levels of evil (I mean, fun)!

The exam-related story was to do with the qualifying exams. for the Ph.D. program in a very well-known Department of Statistics in the U.S. in the mid 1960's. When he and the other students entered the room to take one of the exams., they found that there were two piles of question papers on the front desk. The instructor told them:

"This is the easy exam. paper; and that one is the difficult exam. paper. Choose whichever one you wish!"
(I should mention that the instructor who hatched this plot was a Bayesian of some renown.)

When we heard this story, one of my lunch partners immediately showed his true colours, retorting:

"If I'd been the instructor, I wouldn't have told them which exam. paper was which!"

This was instantly followed by a second, thoroughly cunning, remark:

"If it had been me, I wouldn't have told them which was which, either. And I'd have made the last question on each exam. paper the same - namely, 'Which exam. paper do you think you've just answered?' "
The Vice Chancellor was (and is) a particularly sharp individual, as was reflected in his own immediate contribution:

"Yes, and I'd have graded them entirely on the basis of their answers to that last question!"
He's my kind of guy!

© 2011, David E. Giles


  1. There are two solutions to the 'snap quiz' problem. First, you write into the course guide that snap quizzes may occur - so students have prior warning. Second, you hold a snap quiz for 'self-learning purposes' only, no contribution to final grade.

    So a few weeks ago I had a snap quiz for no grade and didn't collect the scripts but rather ran through the answers, the next week I had exactly the same quiz but did collect the scripts and marked them. There was no grade at stake, so no basis for complaint - but I did write up the exercise in an email and forward it to the program coordinator etc. - but the students, who did poorly, have been much better prepared for class since then.

  2. Excellent ideas!!! I like your style Sinclair!!!

  3. After my first semester as a GSI, we had a meeting with the department "teaching head" (I'm terrible at remembering titles) who generally is pretty strict about taking into account student PC concerns. The suggestion was to simply add the following statement to your syllabus:

    "I reserve the right to change any portion of this class outline at any point without notice."

    Her claim is that this is enough protection for giving a quiz or an extra reading. I don't know if that's really the case, but she was the last person I expected this comment to come from.

    This was Fall 2010, not 1960.

  4. Thanks Millsy - I might see if I can get away with that next semester!!

  5. The educationalists are onto the 'I reserve the right ...' clause. So you write into the course guide that you will pursue various strategies to ensure that deep learning has occurred, to solicit information on student progress and to facilitate student understanding of the course content. This may include (insert various things like snap quizzes, etc. here)

  6. Sinclair: I love it!!!! Who knew there were so many devious individuals out there!


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