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Monday, September 24, 2007

I think that's the smell of terror in the air...

Ladies and Gentlemen, as I sit here writing these words, I find myself in an unusual situation: I am watching my class take an exam.* Exams are funny things, really. On the one hand, we all know that a short examination cannot possibly reveal the full extent of our students' knowledge.** On the other hand, they're often our only way to actually plumb the depths of that knowledge. So, like it or not, we're stuck with them.

As a student I usually disliked and feared exams but, at the same time, had an odd fascinaton with them. My usual feeling before an exam was that I simply wanted to get started on it already. More often than not, by the time the exam actually started, I had hit my point of feeling "ready," whether I actually was or not. When I took the GREs, I recall sitting with a group of other candidates as we waited for the exam center to open. They were feverishly studying, attempting to maximize every moment before the exam. I, to their dismay, built card castles. By my logic, I had already done all the improving I was going to do, and I might as well try to be relaxed for the exam.***

Sadly, my students largely don't have this attitude. I have spent several hours today walking past students who were feverishly cramming for the exam. I have spent considerable time this morning answering their questions. Some of them, I can tell already, are going to do quite well. Some of them, on the other hand, are almost certainly going to be utterly obliterated. Exams are often a study in extremes and I find myself rooting for my struggling students, knowing that as often as not I will be disappointed. As a student I always suspected that my instructors didn't care very much about their students' performance- that they were some sort of impassive grading machines. Sometimes, really, I was right. Often, however, the truth is otherwise: instructors feel triumph and heartbreak when their students succeed and fail and frequently it is only professionalism that keeps us from "adjusting" the grades.

And, of course, I know as I sit here with my students that they feel the same things about me. They imagine that I don't really care, that their success or failure is irrelevant to me. And, whether I can tell them or not, I know that they're wrong.

You've gotta love the irony.

* Which means that I'm using the quasi-functional wireless internet installed by the deranged monkeys that handle IT for my campus.

** Then again, I do think tests are often useful tools for determining the extent of a student's ignorance, so I guess their utility depends on how optimistic your question is.

*** This is ironic as during the test I was so convinced of my poor performance that I kicked a hole in a wall during a bathroom break. As it turns out, I did quite well, but that isn't the point.

As a side note: Yes, this is largely an excuse to not write a more substantive post. What can I say? I have a presentation this afternoon and I need the time.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Am completely with you on the utility of tests in gauging students' ignorance. As mentioned this morning, there are some real winners in the batch that I'm currently grading.

Monday, September 24, 2007 12:07:00 PM  
Blogger Aftersox said...

I did yoga and listened to Rage Against the Machine right before my GREs. It paid off. =)

Monday, September 24, 2007 6:37:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Volscho said...

There is a body of psychology literature that suggests "cramming" may lower test performance as there may be a short-term cognitive overload.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007 7:45:00 AM  

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