Exams: Writing, Responding, and Grading

Today was an exam day. I like giving three exams in a course, so today was Exam I for the spring quarter (we’re in the 4th week). Here are some notes and observations:

The tension in a room during an exam is almost palpable. I never got apprehensive about exams when I was a student, and I was always focused on the task at hand, so I missed out on the tension that was around me [1]. As an instructor I am much more aware of the stress. At times I want to remind students to breathe.

Today my students wrote 271 pages of short essays and definitions–and I graded them ALL.

It fascinates me to see how various minds interpret and respond to the questions I write. It is challenging to write questions.  I want to gauge knowledge and learning.  Frequently the answer doesn’t fit into the mold I so carefully created. I don’t simply want my students to think like me, yet when they don’t it makes grading tough.

Grading moments that amused me: answers in haiku, typos that changed the meaning of sentences, intentional and unintentional puns, and flying elephant graffiti.

When I think back to my undergrad days the most memorable exam question I encountered was: “What animal is Spongebob Squarepants?” It appeared on a chemistry exam as a non sequitur. I remember my thoughts: I never thought of Spongebob as an animal. In fact, he’s not! He’s a kitchen style sponge, so he’s probably plant-based. Do I go with the inferred sea sponge answer, or should I stand for truth and call him cellulose? I compromised and called him a sea sponge (earning a random point, and in chemistry you take all the points you can get).

I don’t plan to put a Spongebob question on one of my exams, but if I do I will not assume he is an animal.

[1] I will exclude my comprehensive exam experience, that was a different animal.

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