Friday, May 16, 2014


A colleague recently shared a review of his (rejected) proposal. The most negative review contained this statement:
There were a number of editorial errors found throughout the proposal. Some were missing commas and the like,
The mind, like, boggles.

Now I need to know: have you ever
  • commented on punctuation in a review? (minor errors, egregious errors, pet peeves?) -- did it affect your overall rating of the proposal, as far as you know?
  • received a comment on punctuation in a review? (minor errors, egregious errors, pet peeves?)
And if there were punctuation, grammar, and/or spelling errors in a review that criticized you for real or perceived punctuation errors, how did you feel about that?

Did you think, "Oh well, the reviewer is just bashing out a review on a webform and of course shouldn't be held to their own high standards for punctuation in proposals. Perhaps that missing comma on page 10 of the proposal indicates that I am a sloppy and untransformative scientist and therefore didn't deserve a grant that would have supported student research."

Or did you think something a bit more negative about the reviewer's punctuated hypocrisy?

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).