This Week in My Classes: Exams!

Last night I invigilated a three-hour exam for my 19th-Century Fiction class; Saturday is the three-hour exam for my Mystery and Detective Fiction class. Papers for all three classes (from everyone in the seminar, and from those who did the essay option in the other two) came in on Monday. So mostly what I’m doing this week is pacing and marking! I’m making decent but not great progress on the essays–I have about 10 left. I haven’t started the exams yet, but tomorrow I’ll be working on the first set in alternation with the papers, and next week of course I need to get everything wrapped up so that I can submit this term’s grades … and move on to prepping for next term.

In some ways I’m not a big fan of exams. I know that they are not always reliable indicators of what students know or what kind of thinking and writing they are capable of, and I don’t think students retain all that well material they cram into their heads during intense last-minute study sessions. On the other hand, there are always some students who flourish in exam situations–who find themselves released from whatever writer’s block made them fumble on essays, or who (whether out of brilliance or desperation, who knows) become remarkably insightful on the fly. Exams also are one more way to take stock of who has done all the reading and who is good at doing the kind of analysis I’ve been trying to teach them, and this is what they are, after all, earning a course credit for. The real reason I keep holding exams for my courses, though, is really quite cynical: I feel that I need the threat of the exam as a motivator over the term. Students, understandably, set priorities, and my experience has been that, perhaps because exams are (or seem) so concrete and measurable, students often ‘prioritize’ exam preparation over other work. (This tendency often manifests itself in the form of late papers submitted with the shameless “excuse” that the students didn’t meet my deadline because they had to study for their chem or psych or Spanish midterms.)

So holding exams is one way to make sure I’m in the game, competing with their other courses for priority. Also, knowing that there will be an exam that covers all of the course material is a helpful incentive for them to actually  do the reading, come to class, and take notes, and these things make our class time much more productive for all of us. Some students need this incentive more than others, of course, but sadly I find nothing focuses attention in the room more visibly than prefacing an exercise or example with “this is the kind of thing I’m likely to ask about on the exam” or “this is a favorite exam passage of mine.” I try to use this phenomenon to our collective advantage: my goal is to get them interested in the readings, to help them learn how to analyze them, etc. To reach these goals, they need to be paying attention. If they are paying attention in part because they are worried that, if they don’t, they won’t do well on the exam, that’s fine with me. In the past couple of weeks I have had more than one conversation with a student who said that they planned to use some of the time before the exam “to finish reading X book”–and since another of my goals is to have them just do all the reading that the course credit they are getting suggests they have done, that’s good too. I try to make my exams thorough, transparent, and fair: I work on practice questions and passages, which we do together in class, and I relate the skills we are practicing in doing this to the other work we’re doing in the course. I make no effort to catch them out, though I do cover the full range of course material. I give out the essay questions in advance so that they can plan their answers.

I don’t hold exams in all my classes. There are no exams in my honours seminars, for instance, where I assume a higher level of commitment and make different kinds of demands (including more emphasis on class participation) across the whole term. I also won’t have an exam in my Close Reading class next term: not only will be we doing a lot of very challenging writing and editing, but it’s not a class that emphasizes coverage, whether of material or of terminology, or skills that can be quickly demonstrated and assessed. But overall I think exams do more good than harm in my classes. There’s even some real satisfaction in marking the good ones and seeing how much students know. Sometimes, bless their hearts, they even write little ‘thanks for the course’ notes at the end. After three stressful hours of exam-writing, that’s pretty generous of them.

Last night’s exam went by more quickly because I brought along Testament of Experience to read. I was at a terribly exciting section: not only was Vera in London enduring the Blitz, but G. was crossing the Atlantic by boat and was torpedoed! Though in some ways this volume is not as surprising or intellectually satisfying to read as the first two, it’s still a remarkable story told by a woman whose life is itself a testament to ideas and commitment, and her account of the devastation of the war is gripping and occasionally heart-rending. More about that later…maybe I’ll be able to finish it during Saturday’s invigilation.

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