Categories
online course Tertiary teaching

Exam tourist

andeecollard: Exam (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s that time of year again. I think I’ve written before about how much I dislike having to administer exams and if I had any choice in the matter, my students wouldn’t have to take exams at all, but it’s not up for discussion in a university setting where I live.

Today I wanted to vent a little about something I find particularly annoying: a practice we jokingly refer to as “exam tourism” in Croatian. Students show up for the exam having previously done virtually zero prep on the off-chance that they’ll pass, or if not, at the very least they’ll get to see what the exam paper looks like, so they’ll be more likely to get a better grade when the next exam date rolls around. They have 4 attempts at taking the exam before they need to retake the course, so they (probably) figure they’re pretty safe and aren’t wasting an attempt. 

I can see how from the students’ perspective this might be a win-win situation, but from where I’m sitting it’s a sad waste of time. I don’t know about other courses but “tourist” exam papers that get handed in to me are usually either only half filled in or show the student hasn’t read (or perhaps put in effort to understand) the instructions, and the scores are pretty dismal as a result. I suspect the students aren’t that concerned because they may not even have expected to pass, but I think I can be excused for feeling fairly resentful at having to waste my time grading papers whose authors haven’t bothered to put in the least bit of effort. I’m sure some would say that’s my job. 

Lest you should be thinking, well maybe students wouldn’t need to resort to this if they only had a chance to practice for the exam a bit in class, let me say that there is an entire unit aimed at practice and revision on our online course, plus there’s a screencast walking the students through the exam paper, describing each exercise type and recommending what to focus on during revision.

I’m curious whether this is a common practice in other countries as well? A Croatian colleague purportedly tells their students that they aren’t allowed to do the tourist thing; if I understand correctly, should a student do this and happen to scrape through, they’ll have to accept a lower grade overall. Normally, once a student passes the exam, their exam grade is added to their other grades from the semester (coursework, etc.) and their final grade is how all this averages out. This is a bit simplistic, but essentially how it works. But the student needs to formally accept this average as their final grade, which means that those who aren’t happy with the exam grade pulling their average down can retake the exam, in theory 3 times. They may not wish to bother with the third attempt because that involves a panel of three examiners, as it’s the “last strike before you’re out” exam.

If you teach in a university setting, how many attempts do your students have at doing the final exam? Do you ever get the impression that students show up at the exam as “tourists”? Does 4 attempts seem like a fair number to you? 

Categories
Tertiary teaching

Design your own exam question

Photo taken from ELTpics by @eannegrenoble, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license

This is a brief post to report on something that I came across on Twitter last year and finally tried out at the final exam a couple of days ago.

There was a tweet – unfortunately, I forget by who and I didn’t bookmark it – that described an intriguing tweak to written exams. Essentially, one of the questions was left blank and students could add any question that hadn’t been asked but they knew the answer or had studied for this. As I understood it, this was entirely optional and was an opportunity to score extra points.

The tweet seemed to garner quite a bit of attention and approval but for all I know the idea isn’t as revolutionary as all that; it might only represent a novel approach in my context, which is not exactly prone to experimentation, especially when it comes to exams. In any case, I knew at once this was something I was going to try in February.

This was the question I added to the last page of the exam paper:

Is there anything else you wish were included in the exam? Something you studied or know the answer to but that question is not in the exam paper? Write down the question(s) and what your answer(s) would be and you may be able to score extra points. Of course, it needs to be related to this course.

Because I’d left it entirely up to the students how many bits of information to include, if any at all, I didn’t settle on how many points they’d actually be able to score. I had this vague idea that the answers might help someone pass if they were short of a few points or get a higher grade if they were pretty close to the cut-off point. As the exam went on, for a short while I thought nobody would take up the option of answering the question and I was sorry the exam had only been scheduled to last an hour because I thought maybe there wasn’t enough time.

Eventually, about half the group did answer. When I read the answers, I realized I’d expected them to refer to the students’ takeaways from the course and say, for instance, things like “I’ve discovered some really effective spell check tools: X and Y” or “I’m much more confident than before about where I could/should use a semi-colon,” along with a sentence to illustrate this.

Instead, they mostly referred to items they’d revised in preparation for the exam, which is not surprising given how the question was phrased. The last unit online included a screencast in which I talked about what they could expect at the exam, so they were (presumably) all aware of what to focus on during revision.

There was a category of answers that clearly didn’t aim at getting a higher grade: one student included suggestions as to how the instructions could be worded more clearly in an exercise and another said they wished they’d been asked to write an essay rather than being tested on a number of discrete points (but then didn’t go on to write an essay, saying that they doubted this would impact on their grade in any way).

Overall, I was able to use those answers where the students had shared what they remembered about the course content to give them a higher grade, so I am counting the experiment as a success, though for some reason my impression is that the person who shared the idea on Twitter was a lot more enthusiastic than me about the results. I think I’ll be using the question again, although probably not on the very next exam date.

Have you used this type of question with your students? What was your experience? If you haven’t, do you think you might? Also, if you have any ideas on how the question could be improved upon (or the link to the original tweet – it might have been phrased much better there), I’d love to hear them. Thanks for reading!

Categories
Language school

You’ve got about five minutes left…

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Sean MacEntee: google exam (CC BY 2.0)

I’ve just had an exam and have some time to kill, so I thought I’d start a new post. Normally I type them up in Word and only add them here when they’re pretty much done, so I never have anything in my drafts folder. But today I’m using the university computer.

When I say I’ve just had an exam, I mean my students have, and I was babysitting supervising  sitting and watching them. Today is the first time I’ve done something a little crazy – I listened to my audiobook for about half the time. Does that seem crazy to you? I’ve heard stories of teachers supposedly supervising exams, but actually reading newspapers or marking test papers/assignments instead of watching the students. I can totally understand that. Watching students scratching away with their pens in (almost) total silence for an hour or more is incredibly boring. However, unless you keep an eye on what they’re doing, I’m pretty sure they’ll find a way to cheat. I don’t know if that sounds terribly mistrustful, does it?

It occurred to me that I’ve never had any input/training on how to administer/supervise tests/exams. Maybe that’s fine and it isn’t necessary, because, I mean, how difficult is it? We’ve taken a bunch of exams when we were students; it’s all pretty straightforward.

I thought I’d briefly describe what I do. Now that I teach in a university setting, I’m less flexible than I used to be in a language school. I try to put together the questions a couple of days before the exam date, so I can read through them with fresh eyes on the day before/of the exam. It’s really embarrassing to catch typos and questions that have more than one correct answer – unless I’ve deliberately planned it that way – when a student asks you to explain something in the middle of the exam. Plus, you’re likely to get flustered (okay, I’m likely to get flustered) and will miss the two students in the back row having a chat.

On the day itself I make enough photocopies for the students who have signed up – I check this online – and always a copy or two extra for the students who didn’t for whatever reason. I don’t have to let them take the exam if their name isn’t on the list, but I usually don’t mind.

When we’re all in the exam hall, I make sure they’re not sitting too close together, and their bags, etc. aren’t too close to them. I don’t ask them to leave their bags and books on the desks in the front row because I rarely have more than 15 or so candidates, and I can easily see if someone is sneaking glances at their open bag. Or something. If I know there are going to be more students than can comfortably sit so that there’s an empty chair on either side of them, I’ll have version A and B of the paper.

I hand out the papers and tell the students how much time they have. At the language school I used to go through the instructions for each task with the whole group, and warn them about common mistakes or what to watch out for, but I’ve come to realize that when the student gets their hands on the exam paper, they just want to get started. Putting them through reading the instructions together would be torture for most.

So, they’re all scribbling away and I start off by sitting behind the teacher’s desk (the instructor’s desk?) – definitely the only time I’ll be sitting down in the classroom unless I’m teaching 121 or a really small group. Then as time goes on, it’s like in a movie when they want to show time is going by – the scene is the same, but I’m behind the desk, then I’m sitting on the desk, then I’m standing at the back of the room, then by the door, and finally by the window. Then behind the desk again. It’s more to get exercise, really, than to check if anyone’s looking at anything other than their paper.

Time drags by. Occasionally, someone asks a question, and I go up to them and answer quietly so as not to disturb the others. Around halfway through, I say half their time is up, and it seems like everyone wakes up for a second. I warn them when they have around 5 minutes left as well. I usually wait for everyone to hand in their papers themselves – I can’t bring myself to say, “Pens down, everyone!” If that means waiting 5 minutes longer, that’s fine. I might say something like, “Okay, Martina, your hour’s up now, so you should be thinking about finishing off that last sentence in the next couple of minutes.” As the students leave, I tell them when they’ll be getting their results.

When I taught at the language school, I was more helpful (flexible) in the sense that I would watch out if anyone had problems completing a particular task and try to nudge them in the right direction. I wouldn’t do that with undergrads. Also, if, say, most people wanted to listen to the recording (in the listening part of the exam) more than twice, we’d do that. There really is no point – I felt – making adult learners who’re paying for their courses feel as if the whole structure is really rigid.

24 hours later – I didn’t have time to finish yesterday, but on the plus side, I can confirm that the drafts folder didn’t do anything rash, like go ahead and publish on its own accord, so I may yet use it again.

So, greater flexibility in a language school – there’s one more thing I wanted to add. I would sometimes have students who had difficulty keeping their eyes on their own paper. These would as often as not be students who were less accurate in terms of grammar than the rest of the group and probably had a more restricted vocabulary when it came to production, but they didn’t really have a hard time keeping up with the others or following what we were doing. I would then have to decide – especially if we were using a B2 coursebook, for instance – if it was worth it making those people feel bad for getting very few points on the future continuous vs future perfect task (or something equally unlikely to prove indispensable in everyday conversation) and possibly failing the exam. Which they would then have to take again with all the attendant stress; there would be little improvement in accuracy, and they would still continue with the group next semester. I would often pretend I didn’t see them peeking at their neighbor’s paper.

What about you? How seriously are exams taken where you teach? Do you ever multitask as you supervise? What do you do if see/catch students cheating?