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!