Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Exams. What are they good for. Huh?

I gave an exam yesterday in one of my classes; since it's a small class (16 students) I decided to try an oral question component. I gave them all the questions in advance, but not my rubric for what constituted a good answer. But it's funny the wide range of answers I got in response, and interesting which students a) had clearly prepared thoroughly versus not, and b) were very nervous about the oral portion.

The written portion, which during my making of the solution key I completed in 15 minutes while watching The Apprentice on TV, was clearly too long - I had to kick students out after two hours, despite telling them I really didn't think anybody would need longer than an hour and a half. Well, live & learn. This is my first time teaching this class or in this major (there are several programs in my department) so I wasn't sure what to expect, even though it's my own degree program, so theoretically I should have a good handle on where these students are.

Today I asked for a little feedback from them regarding the exam. The only surprise was the number of students who, in retrospect, decided that the oral component was "unfair". And not because each student could get a different question, but because all I did was ask them the question and make them give me less than 5 minutes of answer. What was evidently unfair was that I didn't prod them for more information, that they were not given sufficient time to reflect upon and then change their answer, and that I made them nervous by recording it.

That last part I can understand, and if I do this again I won't spring it on them. But the other parts . . . sorry folks, in the real world when somebody asks you a direct question, you answer, and that's the end. If you're sitting in a meeting, the person that asked you the question will not then ask you a series of leading questions so that you can ultimately retract something stupid you may have said. My least favorite things about exams in technical coursework is that it's such a bad model for what actually happens in a job setting. It's unfortunate that this unrealistic situation is the sort of "spot" that we train the students to be the most comfortable "on".

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