Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What Time Is It? It's Exam Time! Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Blue Books!

Cowabunga, Buffalo Bob!

Truth be told, I am actually writing this post while proctoring my exam.  You would think a Tenured Radical like myself wouldn't even believe in exams, wouldn't you?

Wrong.  True, I think this generation of students comes to college so stressed-out, and so tested-out, that in many ways it is an act of mercy not to plan any kind of evaluation that awakens their anxieties (see this article for the use of therapy dogs during exam period at Tufts University.)  In fact, here at Zenith, students have been heard to complain that quizzes (particularly of the "Pop!" variety) and exams are "like high school" and unworthy of college-level scholars.  The desire to administer such forms of evaluation, it is implied, reveals the professor hirself as not quite cool for school. ("Like, man, if you really knew me, you would know what grade to give me!")

And yet I give exams, and here are the reasons why:
  • Taking exams is a skill.  For the vast majority of professional careers, in graduate school, and for a variety of other occupations, these very same students will be asked to take exams.  Oh sure, some of them will be self-administered, but most of them will be taken in a large impersonal room, written by hand, and timed.  Any career -- from soldier, to lawyer, to electrician, to police officer, to medical doctor, to the State Department requires at least one exam -- and sometimes numerous exams, taken throughout one's work life.  Many careers require periodic re-certification; many others require exams for promotion.  The idea that graduating high school liberates most people, of any social class, from test-taking is a lie.
  • As long as we teach surveys, making sense of -- and knowing what you think about -- a period, a field of study, or an area of expertise requires time set aside for comprehensive study.  The exam, in this case, becomes a means to an end.  Let's be honest:  even our best students prepare erratically for classes, and students of all kinds work in bursts that are in many ways governed by the many disparate courses and the work schedules to which they are responsible.  The act of studying, at its best, brings all of these pieces that have been acquired erratically (or not yet acquired at all) together in a whole, at the end of which (ideally) a student has a building block to go on to more advanced work, to research, or to simply salt away for whenever it becomes useful.
  • In the humanities and social sciences, exams allow students who are not yet sophisticated thinkers, or particularly good writers, to work hard, do well, and be proud of themselves.  At all colleges, equally intelligent students enter with different capacities and with different skill sets.  Students who work hard and want to achieve deserve some reward and encouragement for their efforts: if every assignment that they are graded on requires excellent writing skills, or the capacity to structure a complex argument, this means that under prepared students will not get credit for what they are achieving even if they are growing as intellectuals through the act of diligent study.  In other words, there will be some lag time between the acquisition of sophisticated reading skills and the capacity to reproduce and build creatively on what has been read.  This means that many students who are learning and growing will have difficulty showing that unless they are given exams geared towards revealing what they have learned.
  • Let's tell the truth:  many faculty don't give exams because it is a nice way to artificially shorten the semester.  A papers-only class, a series of short quizzes, a take-home or final paper due on the last day of classes -- all of these tactics send certain of our colleagues home a week, or even two weeks, early.  At Zenith this is illegal, but it happens anyway.  Little things reveal it, like the student who wrote to a colleague that but for a pesky exam in that class s/he would be able to leave town slightly before the end of classes to (and I quote) "maximize boy-friend time."  Why is this bad for students?  Well, two reasons.  One is the absence of any of the benefits stated above.  The other is that this puts heavy pressure on the final two weeks of the semester, and in fact, stresses students out more than if they had reading period and exam week to finish up in a more orderly way.
 On a final note, I attended a party the other night at which a number of colleagues and I waxed nostalgic about (wait for it) our "favorite exams, ever!"  This was, just to be clear, our favorite exam that we ever took.  Mine was an oral exam in eighteenth century French history with John Merriman, my sophomore year at Oligarch.  Feel free to contribute yours in the comments section

God it's fun to group up nerdy.


Aeon Elpis said...

I once had an essay exam that prompted, simply, "Tell me what you learned in this course." I can only imagine what those must have been like to read :)

grrlpup said...

I had a classics exam senior year that asked us to design and discuss a curriculum and reading list for a class we'd like to take that built on this one, or related the material to another area we were studying. That was fun.

moria said...

A year ago I disagreed wholeheartedly with everything you say here. Now, I embrace it completely, though only in the context of a medium-to-large survey course. How's that for evidence of what a year in the trenches can do for a starry-eyed neophyte?

And let's not forget one crucial fact: exams are a whole bloody hell of a lot easier to grade than papers are. We may extend our semesters, but we relieve our burdens in other ways.

Catherine said...

I've found exams pretty painful to grade, so far, because they make me feel like a failure as a teacher. But they certainly are revealing about weak spots in one's courses, among other things.

My favorite exams that I've ever taken.... Hmm. I always got pretty stressed out over written exams, mostly because I had no good sense of how low the bar really was. I think I enjoyed some of the art history exams I took in college that featured slide comparisons, and also a few language exams (Greek, French) that were basically decoding puzzles. But by far the best exam experiences I ever had--really enjoyable--were the comprehensive oral exams I took at the end of my senior year of college, and as the last part of my comprehensive PhD exams. I liked the give and take of an oral exam, and it was easy for me to just focus on answering the question, whereas in written exams I usually spent a lot of time staring at the blank paper and panicking.

Flavia said...

As a professor, I agree with everything you say. And as a college student, I actually loved exams--in practice if not always in anticipation. It felt so satisfying to sit there and write and write and write (those three-hour exams at Oligarch! with the mandatory extra half-hour to "check your work"! I almost always took the full 3.5 hours), producing an essay chock-full of details that synthesized everything I had learned over the semester and re-learned through an intensive bout of pre-exam preparation.

Walking out, hand aching like it would never write again, I always felt a tremendous sense of mastery and accomplishment.

Often, I get that sense from my students' exams, too.

Lesboprof said...

I have two favorite exams, both from my undergrad years. The first was actually a multiple choice exam in an honors political philosophy course. It was incredibly difficult, as each answer was one that needed so be considered. Also, most questions had choices that included other answers (e.g., d is a and b, e is all of the above).

The second best exam was another philosophy exam in a summer course on existentialism. The instructor asked us to have an old Nietzsche give advice to a young Kierkegaard about whether or not to marry his love. It was such a creative question, and it allowed us to connect their philosophies to this difficult personal life question. For a 20-something lesboprof, it was a way to connect ideas to our lives.

undine said...

Thank you for defending the reasons we give exams. In addition to liking exams for all these reasons, I had another one when I was in school: they level the playing field for those who were working and taking classes. A take-home exam automatically confers an additional benefit on those who aren't working and can spend more time on it. An in-class exam is more equitable.

gradstudent parent said...

as a sociology major and a graduate of a very progressive high school a rarely took an exam. for my doctoral program i had a two day (9am-4pm), closed book, qualifying exam. looking back, i think you're right on TR. exam prep is a valuable skill and requires a different type of learning and thinking than a term paper or research project. i certainly wish i had a bit more practice going into that exam.

Anonymous said...

I give exams as well, but I have a small set of rules that guide how I implement them.

1. I lower the stakes. Weighing a final exams at 40 or 50% of the grade is problematic for several reasons, but the main issue is that it raises test anxiety, and this can interfere students' ability to demonstrate learning. I weigh the final the same as I do for any other assessment.

2. I assess the forest and not the trees (or the leaves). My hope is that students ultimately retain at least some of the content and thinking skills they gained in the course. This is what I assess in the final. The fundamental concepts and theories. You might think that this is too easy...but it isn't. The students who were present the most of the classes do exceptionally well with little preparation, but the ones who missed do just horrifically - no matter how much they try and cram. To me, that's a win.

3. The final, if designed strategically, can often be a valid assessment of the students' achievement of the course objectives. This is where I assess the tough stuff: analysis and synthesis of theories, and evaluation of case studies in terms of the theory/concept reflected. As TR said, taking exams is a skill, and the ability to step back and integrate/evaluate material theoretically and practically is an important skill. Papers are one way to assess it, and finals are another.

4. And lastly, whether or not finals should be given is not as important is carefully articulated reasons for why. Thanks to TR for her thoughts on this and the other posters as well. Without an articulated purpose for donning the blue-book, the probably outcome will be that students regurgitate the fruits of their all night cram session only to have it permanently blocked from memory by the time they raise a glass to celebrate the end of finals.

Janice said...

My favourite exam ever was in a senior seminar on Tudor & Stuart Britain where our professor gave us a wonderfully ranting quote from the era about how the times were just going to heck with diverse tumults, rising tyranny, etc., etc. and let us free to respond to that source.

I don't give my seniors exams any more: they produce an end-of-term portfolio where they include their best written contribution to the class discussion board, response to the peer review on their papers and selected reaction papers to course readings from the term. They add to that an in-class source analysis done on our last day.

My other undergraduate classes have exams as an integral part of the course, worth 25% (the minimum my university will permit). I try to give either a midterm or quizzes through the term that build test-taking skills but judging from the quality of the short identifications this term, this is no longer working.

Blue said...

Hate to say it, but my reason for supporting exams is none of your high minded ones. I teach at a top rated research university and yet I know that if I don't give an exam in certain classes quite a few of the student's won't do the work.

I don't mean that they won't turn things in, I mean that they will pay for someone else to do the work.

We have too many students in professional disciplines (specifically Engineering, Accounting, and Business) who see required or elective courses taught outside of their major as nuisances dragging their GPA down.

At least if I give an exam I can check their ID.

FrauTech said...

In response to anonymous above, I prefer my final to be a big chunk of my grade. I used to hate it, but now that I'm a struggling working/studying student, I don't always get through the reading or homework when I should and I usually schedule a day off from work during finals week just to study for the exams. My most memorable (though I didn't enjoy it at the time) was my thermodynamics final. I was poised to fail the class, even after the curve, having done poorly on the quizzes and midterm. Because the final was comprehensive, the professor had a rule that if your straight grade on the final was better than your combo/curved grade, he'd use that instead. I studied extensively and managed to pull off a B in that class, meaning a pre-curve B on the final. Pretty impressive improvement from my failing quiz grades.

Before I was an engineering major, I loved my essay finals. Not nearly as stressful as trying to cram in equations or memorize things, I felt like most of them were based on my understanding of the material and my ability to analyze it, which I could always do with minimum effort. I guess I'm the reverse of most engineers, my humanities classes were fun and came naturally to me.

Canuck down South said...

As an undergraduate, all my courses, no matter the discipline, had exams as well as papers. Now that I'm at a university where exams in the humanities are rare, I've been forced to really think about the benefits--so it was nice to see TR articulated them so clearly. One that I might add is that taking exams teaches thegeneral ability to think on your feet--questions after in-class presentations and unexpectedly calling on students are the only other ways I've come up with for teaching this, and only exams can be done with a large class, or really anything much bigger than a seminar.

My favourite exam question ever came from a freshman literature survey. The question was "Milton: discuss."

Anonymous said...

Favorite exam: freshmen year anthropology. I remember nothing about it, except that there were about 30 people I knew in that class, the exam was in a gym (only space big enough for 200 people to take an exam with 6' between us) and when it was over, we just had this sense that we had done something, that we were really in college. It was like a huge collective sigh. And then we went to the dining hall and gorges ourselves. Actually one of my favorite memories.

Historiann said...

Lots of good ideas here. I agree that a comprehensive final admnistered or due during finals week is important in classes other than research seminars, where the production of a final paper based on primary sources is the course goal.

I do mostly take-home exams, however, except in large lecture courses. I disagree with Undine that they're unfair compared to timed exams administered at a specific place and time. Those exams don't erase inequities--after all, the working students will have less time to study for the in-class exams. And, students with busier lives usually appreciate being able to submit their work along a flexible timeline rather than having to show up for a 2-hr. blue book exam.

Most of my students work--and I usually have no idea which of them are working to support their prematurely adult lifestyles (which seem always to include their own apartments, cars, and enormous alcohol budges) and which are working to pay all of their own bills and go to school.

Anonymous said...

My favorite exam was in my New Testament survey course, which was part of my Masters of Theological Studies curriculum. Around Thanksgiving he gave us a list of 12 essay questions -- which covered *everything* we had studied -- and said he would surprise us with 2 for the exam. I studied for that exam like crazy, writing out essays and memorizing them for every question except the 2 I thought least likely to be on there (because I ran out of time). I did well on the exam, but more importantly, I retained more from that course than from perhaps any other in my academic career!

calugg said...

Favorite exams? Doctoral comps, hands down. I had 4 4-hour exams (8-12, 4 days in a row), two weeks off and then orals.

What made it fabulous was the preparation. I locked myself in my apartment for a few weeks and just read, sketched, and started to make these enormous connections across research studies. It was the equivalent to going on a nerd bender, and I knew it was a once in a life-time experience.

I'm probably the only person on earth who just loved their comps.

grumpyabdadjunct said...

My favourite exams were also some of the hardest. I took Physical and Forensic Anthropology with one of the greats (Owen Beattie, he used to walk into class, throw his jacket on the floor and start rapid fire descriptions from overhead slides, slashing around with his coloured markers...brilliant, exciting teacher). The exams involved moving around a lab table on which the bones under study were placed. For each bone specimen you had to say a) whether it was human or not, b) identify whether it was from the right or left side of the body, c) some other specific thing related to that particular specimen. I think we had 60 seconds with each specimen before we moved on to the next thing. Holy hell that was hard, he was notorious for including non-human bones and all kinds of ringers, but at the end you felt you'd really done something and that you'd earned your grade (or not). I think I also really like dealing with something 'real', a material object, the rest of my training was ideas and theory (which I love) but I think the contrast of working with 'stuff' made it different and memorable for me.

Shane in Utah said...

Let's tell the truth: many faculty don't give exams because it is a nice way to artificially shorten the semester.

Actually, in my experience the lazy ones are the ones giving exams--especially multiple-choice exams that can be machine-graded. So while my exam-giving colleagues are already off hitting the ski slopes, I, who think in-class exams are a silly waste of time in most literature courses, am still sitting on a big stack of research papers to grade, which didn't come until until halfway through finals week because I wanted students to take the time to do the paper well. But at least I feel like those research papers evaluate the skills I feel are important, rather than their ability to BS extemporaneously...

Comrade PhysioProf said...

(1) Don't you have some fucken flunkies to proctor your exams? You're a full professor, for fucke's sake. Embrace the gravitas.

(2) You still remember a particular fucken exam you took when you were a sophomore? Half the time I can't even remember where the fucke I went to college.

Lesboprof said...

Comrade, "Embrace the gravitas" may be the funniest thing I have read in ages. Thanks for the laugh!

Jennifer said...

There’s another factor: exams are probably the only time students do one thing at a time. When taking an exam, you are not listening to music, texting, browsing the internet, etc. (Or at least, you shouldn’t be.) I actually think there’s some worth to an hour or two of concentrated attention, quite apart from the specific content of the exam.

Science Lurker said...

My favorite exam, once it was over, was my first bio exam, first semester of college. My SLAC bio dept required evening slots for exams, so they could give as much time as one wanted (usually up to 3 hours). I opened the exam to the first problem. Didn't know the answer. Second problem. Didn't know the answer. Third problem: the same. And through the rest of the exam.

After I let the wave of panic pass (reminding myself I could stay in the room as long as I liked) I thought to myself, I don't KNOW the answers, but maybe I can FIGURE THEM OUT. And proceeded to figure them out, write brief but clear answers, and earn an A. Some of the problems were actually kind of fun. But imagine: a bio exam that was all thinking, no regurgitation. From the very first semester. (A midlevel course from the same dept included an essay on "why are cells small?")

Various of us in my dept have tried to hold exams that focus on whether students have learned to think about what they have been studying, but it is swimming against the tide to challenge the status quo of testing how well they can regurgitate what they have memorized, while under the pressure of an exam too long to complete in the 50 minutes provided.

The latter may be efficient in terms of (1) easy scheduling during regular lecture time (2) high through-put (3) selecting for people who do well under artificial time pressure but can't think their way out of a paper bag and (4) separating out pre-meds who will put up with any sort of sh*t because they really want that A, but I think it makes for lousy pedagogy.

(But on second thought, may be good for the current state of health care in America: your doctor may not think deeply, but at least can memorize well and perform under the time pressure the insurance companies are now inflicting.)