Thursday, May 08, 2014

Liveblogging the Exam

Although taking an exam is most certainly more stressful than giving an exam, giving an exam can be quite stressful. I am not asking for sympathy, I am just stating a fact.

The most stressful exams to administer are those in large classes in which students are packed into every available seat and there may be (alas, too often) issues with cheating. You can devote considerable time and effort to anti-cheating activities such as giving multiple versions of exams, you can have students sign an honor statement, you can patrol classroom non-stop during the exam, or you can just hope for the best.

Giving an exam to a small or medium-sized class is less stressful because the logistics are easier, but that is not to say that giving an exam even in these circumstances is lacking in stress. Or, at least, that is my opinion. Is there anyone who would rather give an exam than have a regular class? I would much rather have non-exam class time. [I am deliberately not addressing the possibility of not having exams at all. In some courses I do not give exams, in others I do, depending on the course.]

OK, so I am about to give an exam in a medium-sized class. I am not dexterous enough to blog while handing out the exam (and the TA does not seem to be in evidence), but I can combine semi-live and liveblogging to try to capture the essence of the experience from the front of the room.

I enter the room. They are all here, in their seats, staring at their notes. This has been a very punctual class so I am not surprised they are all here on time. In a more typical class, students would appear throughout the first 10+ minutes of the class, even on an exam day, making a lot of noise as they rush in, grab an exam, find a seat, deal with the logistics of finding a writing utensil and putting their water bottle in a suitable place

Put your notes away! This takes a moment. I try not to let it eat into exam time (there is another class in this room right after ours), so I start handing out the exam to the nearest row of students who are note-free.

Can we start now? I should remember to say that they can start as soon as they get the exam but sometimes I forget and then someone always asks. It is not a large class, so the time difference between those who get the exam paper first and those who get it last is about a minute. If anyone in the back needs that extra minute, they can have it at the end. In a large class, I need a fleet of assistants to help hand out exam forms so that no student has to wait too long to get the exam or to get their question answered if they have one during the exam.

The room is never totally quiet. Someone is always turning a page, even if the exam has.. one page. And certainly if the exam paper has 2 pages: rustle rustle rustle. The second-most common noise is erasing. There is a lot of erasing going on at this very moment. Some students have very impressive erasers.

Two students just had questions about different exam questions. Both were answered easily by my pointing to a key word or words in the exam question. In both cases the student immediately saw that the answer to their question was right in front of them and thanked me.

The first student is done with the exam, halfway through the allotted time.

The second student just finished, with 20 minutes left to go. Make that three students.

Are the ones who finish very early the ones who are doing well in the course so far? In fact, there does not seem to be a strong correlation between those who are doing very well or very not-well in the course (to date) and those who finish the exam early, just as I predict that there will be a random collection of students (with respect to course performance) at the very last second of the exam.

At various times in my teaching past, I have timed myself taking an exam that I wrote. The purpose of this was to see how much time it took just for the physical act of writing (correct) answers, in the ideal case in which the answer is immediately known. The amount of time available for students to take the exam should of course be greater than this, but greater by how much? For certain courses, I developed a simple formula and adjusted the number and type of test questions accordingly.

I haven't done that in a while. Perhaps I am in that dangerous stage of my teaching career when I assume that I 'just know' how to do things like create an exam that is fair in length and level. I like to think there would be some warning signs (in my teaching evaluations? in other student comments?) if I have gone astray (or were to do so in the future).

I have started grading the exams turned in early. Students in previous classes have told me that it stresses them out if I start grading while some of them are still taking the test but it's not as if I am chortling in an evil way as I slash giant red X's through incorrect answers. I am not even sighing. I suppose it could be disconcerting if I also made happy sounds while grading. So I try to be subtle and quiet, serious and respectful as I make my first forays into grading amidst continued test-taking by the remaining students. Do you start grading turned-in exams whilst other students are still taking the test?

.. with a few minutes left to go, ~50% of the class remains. Some are just staring at the exam paper, some are writing rapidly. Some are obsessively clicking their writing utensils.

The deluge of exam-turning-in is about to begin. Some students acknowledge my presence as they turn in the exam and some do not make eye contact. I don't try to read anything into this. Some of the no-eye-contact students may have done quite well and are still feeling the residual effects of exam-stress. My general (delusional?) impression is that the students found the exam to be reasonable. I do not sense major unhappiness or anxiety.

We are in the final minute; 20% of the class remains.

Has anyone ever studied what % of students stay until the very end of an exam time, even if they are finished? Is there a universal value? Or is there a characteristic value for each professor, and/or for particular types of classes, institutions, etc.? The next time you give an exam, please record (and post in a comment) the % of students who stay until the very last possible moment (and was this in a large, medium, or small class)? Do you think the % who cling onto every second avalable is a function of your exam-philosophy or something else?

In this case, 8% of the class needed the exam extracted from them with some effort on my part. I do not like that. What do you do when you have to pry an exam away from a student when time is up? Do you just take it? Do you loom over them? Do you try increasingly forceful statements? Do you beg them to turn it in? Tell them you will not accept the exam if it is not turned in now? Do you walk out of the room?

The exam is done. I was interested in doing some grading while the exam was going on (efficient use of time! good way to see how some students did on the exam!), but now I am not.

Only one student has asked when I would have the exam graded (answer: "in a few days if possible"). I did not mention that cats are an essential part of my grading ritual (TMI).











19 comments:

John Vidale said...

A couple of contrasts to your observations

1. I generally give them a test shorter than the time requires, and 95-99% of them finish before the end of the time period (getting about 70-80% right, on average). I'd prefer not to rush them, just only see what they know.

2. It's not very generous of me, but multiple versions, fairly small print, and watching them remove much of the temptation to cheat. Some still try, but it is harder, as I can see their eyes. They are entertaining to watch, so it is not boring.

Exams are overall more work with exam preparation and grading than a regular lecture, but with the reward that afterwards the class is over, but definitely involve more stress for everyone.

anotherfemalescienceprofessor said...


In undergraduate classes, I always have teaching assistants take the exam and time themselves on each individual question. This gives me a sense if the exam is too long, and also is helpful figuring out which questions cut if it is, and for adjusting point values, because I prefer to have the point values roughly correlated with the time it takes to do the questions. I'm sure your exams are still a fine length, because otherwise very few students would be leaving early.

I often glance at the exams turned in early, but rarely grade them because if I was a student I know it would wig me out. Something about needing to tune out the fact that judgment is going to be passed on answers, maybe. Similar to how oral exams are more nerve-racking than written exams for most students-- you are going to be judged immediately, by that scary person right there.

Once a student who turned an exam in super early had forgotten to answer a big part of one of the questions, and I was able to catch him before he had left the building. Once in a large class, I had to give the exam separated between two classrooms right next to each other, and was fascinated to observe that while in one room, maybe 10-15% had finished and turned it in with almost half an hour to go, but when I went over to the other room nobody had left yet. Then, once the first person turned it in in the second room, a bunch of other students turned theirs in.

Anonymous said...

I used to track the timing on my exam, which was a formally proctored 3 hour exam in an examination venue. The exam was deliberately longer than necessary, the content was really much more a 2 hour exam than a 3 hour exam, but I've never understood the compulsion to make exams a race.

Those leaving in under an hour were usually the ones who knew nothing and had come to the exam hoping for a miracle, and when the compulsory 30 minutes was gone, left with the miracle having failed to occur. There were a handful of really really good students who were also fast writers who got it done in around a hour or just less.

Between hour 1 and 1.5 hours, you got about 10% leaving, mostly the best 10%. Between 1.5 hours and 2 hours, you had roughly another 60% finish and they were a pretty random mix of students. Between 2 and 2.5 hours, another 20-25% finished, leaving 5-10% left. The 2-2.5 hour lot were also fairly random in their performance.

The 5-10% who stayed to the end of the exam consisted of two roughly equal groups: good students who had finished the exam, but couldn't make themselves actually leave an exam before the time was up, they either sat there with the paper closed in front of them or obsessively hunted through the paper looking for errors. The other half were those who were completely lost, but were going to keep trying until the time was called regardless. I always admired their persistence, though I often felt that if they'd shown some of the same persistence during the semester, their result might have been better!

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I generally try to arrange exams so that the students have 3 or 4 times as much time as it takes me to do the exam, but I give very few exams, preferring to grade students on weekly projects (design reports or programs). Working engineers rarely get exam-style problems, but they write a lot of programs and design reports, so those are the skills they need to practice in college.

I have one 70-minute-long quiz that I give that I know half the class will fail (mean score about 7/33), though the problems only take about 15 minutes to work, some of them are directly copied from the "you must memorize this" study sheet, and some are from examples done already in class.

I then have them redo the quiz as homework, and go over it in class again after that. It is amazing how much closer attention they pay to the problems if they have already seen them on a quiz!

The second such quiz generally gets much better performance, though it is actually harder questions.

a physicist said...

I once taught a 100 person class, and gave unlimited time on the final exam. Mean time was about 2 - 2.5 hours (as I intended), the max time was about 4 hours (as I expected, having done this before). That year I wrote down the time whenever a student handed it in, and then later I plotted the cumulative distribution of number of exams handed in so far, as a function of time. As I expected, it fit nicely to a tanh function with a width of about 40 minutes.

I don't do any grading while the students are there, usually I'm still monitoring for cheating, or keeping an eye open for last-minute urgent questions.

In many cases I do give timed exams in large classes. I announce "One more minute left" and then give them two minutes. Then I announce "Time's up, stop working, please hand in your exam." About 1-2 minutes later I announce "Any exams I don't have 60 seconds from now will have points taken off." About 90 seconds later, anybody who hands me an exam I write in red ink on the top of their exam "late exam" and maybe a notation about how many seconds (or minutes) late they handed it in. (That is, someone who hands it in 100 s after my last announcement is 10 s late... I'm giving them a grace period.) When I'm grading, I try to guess how many points they might have been able to earn with that much extra time, and penalize them accordingly. When they complain, I point out that they had say 2-3 full minutes after I said "time is up" before I counted it as late, and that usually reduces the forcefulness of their complaint.

Usually visibly doing that gets the message around to the rest of the class. Or sometimes I warn the class ahead of time that late exams will suffer penalties, without getting into details of grace periods.

Anonymous said...

I just announce "I am SLOWWWLY walking out the door. Any exams NOT in my hand by the time I leave are not getting graded."

I also check, as much as I can, to see that the students have at least answered SOMETHING on problem solving/fill in the blanks, and have at least GUESSED on the multiple choice.

This is the first year I've really had a bad problem with cheating though. I took away so many cell phones, and actually had one student (when only 20% of the class was left) get up, move to another section of the lecture hall, talk to her friend, and then return to her seat. Wearing a bright red shirt.

Anonymous said...

Drat - it really stinks when you think you have on your Cloak of Invisibility and you have on the Cloak of Infinite Stupidity instead.

John Smith said...

I have been a teacher for over 17 years. Give different exams and have people help monitor the class if possible. Have them cover their answers. Honor statements are worthless. People are inherently dishonest.
http://www.docphysicsworld.com/

Lirael said...

TAing a lecture class, as opposed to a smaller lab-oriented class, for the first time this semester, one thing that surprised me was that my students didn't seem to understand that when time gets called it means they're done. I'd come to collect their blue books and they would still be writing frantically, telling me that they were just finishing a sentence/paragraph.

Anonymous said...

I find the following very effective: After calling time twice, I announce that any exam that is not turned in when I walk out the door gets a 0.

Unknown said...

I have two exam practices which i have strongly embraced.

First I write and give a "cheat sheet" consisting of likely questions, past questions, and answers about a week before. I know people in frats have test banks and other's notes. I would like the working student and the odd student out to have a level playing field in terms of studying and preparing.

I grade exams one question at a time. I also have partial credit. If there is a misunderstanding in the question, I see that before I have graded half. It is appears there is a common error, and thus one that is a function of teaching, I can easily go back for that question and adjust scores. It makes grading more uniform.

I collect the tests and announce I am leaving. Then i do do. A few people will rush up at the end. I have not examined a correlation between time and scores.

Anonymous said...

I always provide much more time than is needed for the exam (usually at least double what the average student uses), and only once have I needed to prompt a student to hand in the exam. Feeling less of a time crunch I think actually allows them to work a little more easily and hand it in sooner than they would otherwise.

profmamallama said...

I generally have 10% of my students stay until the very last second of my exams. My classes are small, so with 8 to 20 students, there are 1 or 2 of them who consistently submit last. Those students tend to write the longest answers, usually too much for the space I provide.

I think it's more those students' attitudes toward exams than anything in particular about my exam philosophy. However, perhaps the long-windedness of the 10% is because my exams are broad and allow creativity. I developed this style so that even the students who have struggled will be able to show what they learned. Such exams are fun to grade (with a simple rubric) and students tell me they enjoy writing them. Although the 10% who finished last usually seem more frazzled and don't stick around to bask in the glow of their awesome exam experience...

Anonymous said...

I leave students at least twice the amount of time it takes me to complete the exam. Preferably 3 times. I want to know what the students have learned, not how they function under time pressure.

To get the students to turn in the test when the time is up, I announce, "I am now walking out the door. If I do not have your test by the time I am out, I will not grade it." Then I walk to the door. This averts all problems in my classes, about 30 students. I am not draconian about darting out the door just to cause some students to fail. No one has ever failed to turn in their test.

Anonymous said...

I once analyzed data from a class of ~80 students to look for a correlation between the order in which a multiple-choice exam was turned in and the grade. (The automated scoring service gave each a number according to the order the pile was in, so I really didn't do anything.) There was no relationship. I recall showing the class the figure (grade ~ order) on one of the following days.
It was a good exercise for me since I used to take exams quickly and do well, so I definitely had a bias.

Anonymous said...

There's always time to check and recheck your answers, so I usually stayed until the end of the exam. I usually finished among the highest grades.

Once in high school I had a biology test where I finished early, so I checked and rechecked my answers and left at the end of the test period. Thought I did pretty well. I got back the test and had a 68/100 -- I forgot to write two essays! The teacher and I had a laugh about that one, I didn't retake the test or anything but I think she discounted it in my final grade.

raju goud said...

Being a student, I know the mentality of the students.The students always think to copy in any possible way to get atleast some peanuts of marks and by the way we know the importance of evry single mark only in the examination hall.:p
There we take every question seriously and try all possible ways to answer that but unfortunately it should be the thing that to be done before the exams.The mind of the students is tuned like that from decades and we are mentally prepared to do night outs the day before the exams feeling that's a great thing to do.

Anonymous said...

Comments from a Student:

I stay for the whole duration of test time, whether I need it or not. If its unlimited time, I wait until the last person turns it in.

I have heard profs give answers to other students' questions that were just enough of a hint to indicate that I understood a question or misunderstood a question. Hearing those answers are reason enough to stay until the end.

Second, if I have time, I will do the test twice. I have found wrong answers, answers hidden in subsequent questions, and pages that I have missed when I did the test a second time. This practice often means I need 100% of the available time.

Anonymous said...

From the perspective of an instructor with not too distant recall of many test taking "opportunities"~ I noticed a personal trend~ almost always having the incorrect answer-- to the first few questions! As a student, I was usually well prepared for examinations and perplexed with this strange and yet...repetitive scenario. I learned to attribute this issue to test anticipation (yes--I think anticipation is the accurate term here). I learned to answer all questions, not get too excited about the first five answers, pace myself accordingly to the allotted time, and think about reviewing the first few questions for completeness and corrections~ when available--extra time was very helpful...
One of my instructors in the past taught me more than the course-with test taking advice that could be applied to life skills--This bioscience instructor always placed this quote- "Relax. Take a deep breath. You know more than you think".. just below the honor code signature line....
I share this personal experience information with my students before their first exam- it reminds them 1)that I've been in their seat(s), 2)reviewing responses may be helpful, 3) manage time for review as needed 4) gives a bit of last second coaching- "Relax-take a deep breath.."
5) I've been able to apply the advice of #4 through many life situations-- sometimes good life advice comes from unusual scenarios!
Although I've not performed an objective study regarding exam timing, responses, etc... several students have provided subjective information that this advice/information has assisted with test taking issues... and appreciated extra time for review of their answers/responses... very similar to my own experience--