Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Why Do Professors Give Exams..

Today I had a major exam in the language class I am taking. I don't mind taking a test the day before Thanksgiving, but I don't think I would give such an exam in a class I was teaching. In one of the classes I am teaching this semester, I asked the students if they had exams in their other classes this week, and most did not. The few who did asked "Why do professors give exams the week of a big holiday?".

Quite a few of my students either had tests last week or have tests next week. One student asked "Why do professors give exams the week after a holiday?" and another asked "Why do professors give exams the week before a holiday?" and another asked "Why do professors give exams so close to the end of the semester?". The students also hate exams on Mondays and Fridays. I think that leaves a Wednesday in mid-October as the only acceptable date, though it's difficult for students to have lots of exams on the same day or in the same week, so maybe that possibility is out as well. When I was discussing this with my students, I laughed and said "It seems that your real question is Why do professors give exams?".

The class in which I had this discussion doesn't have any exams, so it was an easy topic to discuss openly, although I kept the discussion on the topic of exam scheduling rather than the cosmic question about the existence of exams. It really seemed to surprise some students that professors don't have evil motives when picking exam times, and that the amount of material covered relative to the type of exam is perhaps the main factor in deciding when and how many exams there will be.


Anonymous said...

But the students have three other exams on that Wednesday in mid-October!

Anonymous said...

So why do professors give exams? Why do you, assuming you do in other courses you teach?

Also, do you think the exam in the language course you are taking is helping you learn? (If so, that would certainly be a reasonable reason to give them.) If so, how / why?

Anonymous said...

In the "real world" problems come with no schedule, sometimes they come at a time without prior notice.

Ask them to keep The Murphy's Law in their mind at the first day of your class and welcome them to the world.

Anonymous said...

There is empirical evidence in cognitive psychology that the act of taking a test results in greater memory than simply studying. It engages different cognitive processes and memory occurs when you think about information in terms of its meaning, linking it to other existing knowledge. So, testing enhances learning in ways that studying and other classroom activities do not. That is why professors should be giving tests, and the more the better. That argues in favor of frequent quizzes instead of (or in addition to) large exams at infrequent intervals. Professors should know the literature on learning.

Anonymous said...

Many professors would love to give more frequent quizzes. (While we're at it, we'd love to give assessments that require critical thinking and writing, rather than filling in bubbles.) I'd give quizzes every week if somebody offered to pay a TA to mark them.

Anonymous said...

There is an old debate in mathematics between whether it is better to be a "problem solver" or a "theory builder", although obviously all research involves both elements.

At the undergraduate level, I remember studies (though I can't remember which ones unfortunately) which compared the sorts of students who tried to learn by:

-first trying to do the problem sheets straight away
-then if they got stuck, tried to look for an example
-then if they got stuck, tried to skimread the notes
-then if they got stuck, tried to understand the notes

and those who tried to understand
every sentence of the notes before tackling the problems.

Surprisingly, and against all intuition, the first type ('exam focused') actually learned and remembered more of the
material in future years than the second type.

Furthermore, there was a disparity (though not too wide) in learning style between genders (males tended more towards type one than females), school background (those who went to "better" schools had somehow learned, albeit unconsciously, about fairly sophisticated exam strategies), etc

Everything I am saying is a generalization - but it does suggest interesting ways in which it might be helpful to "shape" the way in which people learn to make them better mathematicians.

Caveat emptor: As it stands, everything I have just said is one big anecdote. Also, it is only for mathematics. However, I will say that I find this reproduced in results in my department.

Also, I have no idea about the pschology underlying the phenomenon...

Unknown said...

I can't think of any two bloggers further apart than you and I. You, because you are out in the stratosphere in your thoughts and I because my life has become so mundane. But even in mundanity (a word?) can be found drama. To see, visit me if you like.

DearPriya said...

While I'm sure professors don't intentionally try to ruin our lives when giving exams, sometimes it sure seems that way. My roommate's bio professor has scheduled an exam on the last day of classes - when most other teachers hold a review - and is still making them take a final exam on top of that one.

Anonymous said...

overachiever -- didn't you read the preceding comments? Exams are good for you and they help you learn. It is not a punishment. You need to practice knowledge by using it or it will not stick.

Anonymous said...

Test just suck