Watching students write their final exam

This morning I spent 3 hours watching my students write their final exam.  It’s a strange experience, as I want them all to do well, but know that some will and some won’t, for a whole host of reasons.  You might think that spending 3 hours pacing around a room might be dull (and I admit sometimes it can be), but I usually find myself a bit on edge.  Stressed is too strong a word, but I definitely have some nervous tension.  Why?  One reason is that the students are stressed, which tends to rub off on me.  Another reason is that I always wonder if I have made the test too difficult or too easy.  In a 3 hour exam, if all of the students are still there at the very end, some on the verge of tears, then I can only conclude that I made it too long and/or too difficult (when I first started teaching, this happened more than once).  If they all leave after the first hour of a three-hour exam, with big smiles and a spring in their step, then I probably made it too short and/or too easy (this doesn’t happen too often).  I always remember chatting with a senior colleague, when I was still a rookie and he was on the verge of retirement, who told me that after all his years of teaching he still could never be sure how a particular group of students would do on a test.  At this stage, I usually have a fairly good idea, but you still never know for sure.  I design my exams to take about 2-2.5 hours to complete and I give them 3, so that time is not a factor in their performance.  Others may think differently, but I feel I can adequately survey their knowledge of the course in that time, and I know that students appreciate this approach.

Another source of tension comes from the fear that I have made some egregious and undiscovered error when I created the exam.  Sure enough, two minutes after the students started this morning, one of them politely pointed out to me that questions 2 and 3 were identical – aaagh!  I hate it when I do that!  I must have proofread that exam five times before submitting it for duplication, but still managed to miss the mistake.  It wasn’t a huge problem, as excluding one of the duplicates made the exam out of 77 instead of 80, but it still bugs me.  Fortunately, those errors are rare (really!).  At this point, I should mention that, if you are a former, current, or future student of mine, I don’t want you to think that I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown during every exam – I do manage to keep myself together.  :-)

On a more positive note, the best part of a final exam (for me at least) is when I know I’ve set a reasonable exam, and a student finishes, confidently hands it in, thanks me for the course, and wishes me a great summer.  I love it when students do well, and it’s so satisfying when it’s clear that they liked the course, learned the material, and did well enough on the exam that they have a smile on their face at the end.

2 thoughts on “Watching students write their final exam”

  1. Don,

    It has been quite a bit of time since I had to deal with handling final examinations. However your posting brought back a number of memories.

    The first was of a final examination that I took as an undergraduate. It was in a forestry course and the exam was handed out a week before the scheduled event. The material in the handout stated that the final examination would consist of five, short answer questions. Each of us was to create five questions that effectively covered the material presented in the course. During the exam we answered our own questions and were graded, as I recall, 60% on the questions we created and 40% on our answers!

    Another involved one of my graduate level GIS courses (at that time, undergraduate courses in GIS were rare but advanced undergraduates could register for the graduate course). My final examinations normally consisted of questions handed out several days ahead of time that were to be turned in by the time of the “scheduled” final examination. Then some administrator mandated that all classes were to have in-classroom exams (even graduate seminars!). My exam question went something like this:

    Several sheets of blank paper are attached. Use this paper to write a letter to your Mother that describes why you took this class and what you learned by doing so. Remember that Mother becomes very upset when she cannot easily read what you have written in your letter. A number of the responses were quite illuminating!


    1. Getting students to write their own exam questions – brilliant! :-)

      Your “letter to Mom” question is great, although I fear some students would produce a short novel on the topic! Thanks for the comments – it’s great to get your perspective.


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