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
Thoughts and reflections

Looking back on 2018

I love year-in-review posts. They’re often a tad more personal than the usual ELT blog post in that they touch on areas of life outside of the classroom, which I always enjoy reading about. I’ve been following some folks’ blogs long enough to feel as if I know them in real life, so it’s great to read about their successes and challenges, and how they overcame/are dealing with the latter. Year-in-review posts can also be a useful reminder of things people have previously shared on their blogs or social media, but with the flood of news out there it’s often easy to overlook/forget bits of pertinent information.   

The idea for this post came from Sandy Millin’s blog, where you can also read which other posts inspired hers. I’ve adapted it a bit because a) it’s not December anymore, b) if I wrote about 31 points this would be completed in June, and c) I have nothing to say for some of the prompts, so I left them out.   

Your favorite activity from 2018

I haven’t taught offline much for quite a while now, so I’m going to go with an online activity which isn’t from 2018 but remains one of my favorites: the anonymous peer review. I wrote about how it’s set up in my course and which tweaks have been added over time in this post.

Most memorable story from 2018

This would have to be my visit to Athens in the spring. I hadn’t been to Greece before and it was great to have the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks there. One thing I’ll definitely remember the visit by is meeting one of my PLN in person – thanks for everything, Christina! Proof that the ELT world is indeed a small one is that in the brief time while I was in Athens the sixth BELTA Day took place and Christina was a presenter, so I was able to reminisce about the lovely BELTA people and previous BELTA Days without – hopefully – sounding too nostalgic.

the moment in 2018 you felt proud as a teacher

This isn’t classroom related but I’ve been adjuncting at the University of Zagreb since 2008, and a couple of years into this I was expected to qualify for the title of lecturer, which is the educational title lowest on the scale in the Croatian tertiary education system. Once you qualify, you hold this position for five years, after which you can go for re-election or try to move a step up the ladder. Last year I qualified for senior lecturer, which sounds grander than it is (especially if you’re still adjuncting – I expect I could soon be setting some kind of record), but was a bit of a proud moment nevertheless.

A new idea you implemented in 2018

The idea isn’t new but I finally got around to trying out badges. I’m still planning to create two more – for which I’ve more or less defined the criteria – by the end of the semester.

Your favorite teaching aid in 2018

A reliable board marker that doesn’t die on me halfway through the class.

The moment in 2018 when you felt proud of your student

There was definitely more than a single moment/student, but one that readily comes to mind is when a wonderful, very motivated and hardworking student – who recently graduated (or is almost there) – got a job at a place that inspires job satisfaction and looks good on their CV.

Your favorite teaching website in 2018

I don’t really have one. My favorite resource for everything teaching related is Twitter and I follow up on interesting info I come across by clicking through to whatever resources the person tweeting has linked to. These are, however, far more often blogs than websites like Edutopia or Teaching English. A quick look at some of my recent retweets suggests that I may have visited the EdSurge HigherEd website pretty often and I think this is explained by the fact that they cover topics of relevance both to my non-teaching (but still in the education sector) job and tertiary ed topics.

The person who inspired you in 2018

Some of my coworkers. I won’t single anyone out just in case someone from work ever reads this, primarily because many people there have been inspirational in a number of small (and not-so-small) ways and I don’t want anyone to feel left out.

Your greatest challenge in 2018

Overcoming impostor syndrome. Changing professions/working environments after such a long time did leave me with nagging doubts as to whether I was doing a good job, even if objectively I knew I was coping at least satisfactorily. Before I always used to be the one who had been doing that job forever when a new coworker came along and it was a challenge to be on the other side.  

Your strongest point as a teacher

Modesty dictates I say my students should be asked about this. But now I think about it, this really is a tough question. I’ve been teaching for 20 years so there are probably few things I’m hopeless at (apart from teaching YLs and teens, which I’ve never done). I hope I’m good at making students feel confident about their language skills. Let’s put it this way: I would be happy if that was how students felt.    

Your favorite teaching application in 2018

Definitely H5P, which I’ve written about here and here. I’m planning to try out more of their content types this year.  

The best CPD book you read in 2018

Readers of this blog know I occasionally do translations, so I think I’m justified in choosing this as a CPD book: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos.

Your greatest frustration in 2018

Probably the fact that I wasn’t sure if my non-teaching contract was going to be extended, as a result of which I thought it would be prudent to hang on to any work I’d been doing previously. This included proofreading/language-editing/translation work and online teaching, so I worked almost every evening and weekend for the first half of the year. Luckily, the contract was eventually extended.

One thing you want non-teachers to understand

That it’s normal for teachers to be on the lookout for things that will make their job easier. People in other professions do this too. It’s great that there are teachers who enjoy being immersed in PD opportunities 24/7 and who will always take the more challenging route, but that works for them and shouldn’t be seen as the norm every teacher should necessarily aspire to.

Your most memorable teaching experiment in 2018

This has got to be the workshop on academic writing I delivered for my coworkers. I asked for my PLN for ideas and input in this post and would like to thank everyone once again: I thought the workshop turned out pretty well. There was some talk at the time that we might have more frequent sessions for those interested, and not only on academic writing but other aspects of language, but that hasn’t yet come to pass, primarily because I haven’t done anything about it. I didn’t want to commit to something I might not have the time and energy to do properly.

your personal success in 2018

I’m not sure if the “personal” is meant to stress that I see this as a success only I contributed to/brought about (as opposed to being part of a team), but I’m going to interpret it as also referring to team successes. I wrote about being involved in AMORES project here and here. The project ended three years ago but in 2018 articles describing project results were published in two books. It’s great to see the project living on!

One thing you plan to change in 2019

If I were the least bit confident that there was a chance of this actually happening, I’d say I’d do more exercise. 

Your greatest discovery in 2018

I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but you know the timer app on your phone? Oh, okay, I know, Google Keep. ILovePDF? Nope, nothing revolutionary.

Thank you for reading! I hope it’s not too late to wish you a great year ahead and please let me know if you’ve done a year-in-review post – I’d love to read it!