Wednesday, February 23, 2005

What to tell the students about the exam?

Exam time approaches. There’s always a fine line to be drawn between telling the students the answers and finding they don’t know them. One of my colleague’s courses last year collapsed amid complaints of bad teaching and unfair assessment. And to cap it all off he lost a lot of prime time in the summer setting another exam paper, organising revision sessions and marking. Not a good idea. I must make sure the students know how to do the questions in the exam paper.

Telling them the questions and how to do them would obviously be cheating, but to play fair to everyone (especially me) I need to make sure I show them similar questions.

I’ve left the last session for a review of the course. The students take this to mean a preview of the exam and turn up in large numbers. They sit waiting expectantly. I’ve told them I will respond to questions only. I would like questions on some interesting aspect of the subject. Instead, the first question is

“How do you do Q4 on the 2003 paper?”

I try to answer it but without writing it out word for word, because if I do that they will memorise what I write and it will appear in their answers to the real exam. So I write some bullet point notes and talk in rough terms about the answer.

But even with this modest aim, I find two other problems. First, bits of the question are silly. What other forms of analysis does the package provide – for twelve marks! The straight answer is just a simple list of the names of four features of the software, which is trivial. Perhaps I need more, but I didn’t ask. And even these four things should have been included in good answers to the previous part.

I try to skate over this by mentioning the four features quickly and moving on. Seems to work. Nobody says anything. But then, their agenda is to see what I say, and the more they say, the less they get to learn about what I say. Which is obviously the key to finding out what’s in the exam.

The second problem is that I don’t really know some of the answers myself. I tell them about the importance of two dimensions being separate in a fairly technical sense. This is illustrated by a convincing sounding story about meals and holidays. But this has nothing to do with the question at hand, which is about people being appointed to jobs. How to explain the connection? I’m not all sure, but have a sneaking sort of suspicion that the issue is either too obvious to be worth mentioning, or too complicated for mentioning it to be feasible. (This suspicion is confirmed later after a few hour mulling on the issue.) Either way, I’m bullshitting, so I talk quickly and move on.

This all seems to work. Last year only one student failed, although the external examiner thought the paper fair and challenging. The reason they all passed was that they’d practised on the previous year’s paper, which was very similar. All I have to do is go on setting very similar papers. The fact that some questions are silly, and others are impossible, doesn’t matter because the all the students need to do is to absorb the criteria I use for judging good answers. And they manage to do it wonderfully well, and the course is a marvellous success.

It isn’t really of course. The questions I asked are just a tiny proportion of the sort of questions the students should be facing. But if I did have the ability (a dubious assumption) to make the papers less stereotyped and set more varied questions, the students would fail their exams. No, I have to go on setting the same questions year after year. To do otherwise would be breaking the rules of the game and would be unfair to everyone except students who want a genuine challenge. But then such characters won’t be on our course, will they? We have to respond to the market.