Saturday, June 25, 2011

Final Final

So, after the last lecture there was the final—the final final of my career at Davis. I think my exams may stress me out more than my students.

Writing an exam is stressful. I choose some biological topic—a type of diatom, biofuels, wine, what happens to a dead whale—and ask questions about it. The theme for this exam was the origins of life. For the students, a “themed” exam requires the application of stuff from the class, rather than just knowing it. For me, such an exam means an excuse to meander through the literature on a subject I find diverting. I still have to make sure there are still a good distribution of easy and hard questions, that the questions are precise but not too lawyerly in their wording, that the wrong answers are clearly wrong but at least slightly plausible (this is much harder than it sounds) and that the answers are not all “c”.

The final was scheduled for Monday at 3:00. Having a deadline helps, since otherwise I tend to just do more and more meandering through the literature and write weirder and weirder questions. This deadline was made more difficult by a couple of factors—the chaos of moving and having work done on the house was one, and an absolutely essential concert by the Alexander String Quartet the previous evening was another. (During the intermission at the quartet concert, I overheard one of the audience telling his companion that “I really should be at home writing my final exam right now—but I couldn’t miss this!” I told him that I sympathized, and found out that his final, in Chinese history, was scheduled for 10:00 AM on Monday. So, I’m not the worst.) At any rate, the exam was more-or-less complete by 3:00 AM Monday. I emailed it to the TAs for critical comments.

Physically producing the exam can also be stressful. Monday morning, I incorporated most of the TA’s editorial work, rearranged the questions to make A, B, and C versious of the exam, printed it, answered emails from panicking students, and went off to Davis. Since I never get my exams ready far in advance, I never can get them printed by campus reprografics, so I end up copying and sorting them myself. Usually this goes smoothly, but this time was an absolute nightmare. One copier kept jamming; another said that it had made 100 copies of one version of the test, but had only produced 60; another ran out of paper and wouldn’t tell me how many copies it had produced before it quit. It was a real copying nightmare, and what should have taken less than an hour still wasn’t finished in an hour and forty-five minutes, when the exam was scheduled to begin. I ended up starting a third of the class with incomplete exams, and had to run back to the copier to finish up and give them the remainder of their exams a half hour later.

The real stress is the interim between the start of the exam and the grading. Normally this is bad enough: I hope so badly that the students all ace the exam. If I’ve done my job properly, and they’ve done their job properly, then the class average should be about 90%. I know this is never the case, but the stress comes in wondering just how far short of my hopes reality will be. I can write an easy exam, or a challenging exam, or a boring exam—no matter what, the class average is usually somewhere between 60% and 75%, and I count 75% as a raging success. Anyway, I am on pins and needles from the moment I hand out the exam to the moment I look over the question-by-question analysis of the test results.

This normally stressful situation was made even worse than usual for my final final. There was the aforementioned copying snafu. There was my own cellphone ringing during the exam—our realtor with an urgent update on the house we want to buy in Oregon. There was my own cellphone ringing, again—our realtor in Sacramento with an urgent query about a detail of our house we’re trying to sell. One of my students, who I was aware had neurological issues, had a seizure late in the exam period. Fortunately, one of her neighbors was a first-aider, and the paramedics came rapidly, but it made for a very nervous and disruptive experience all around.

Two weeks later, it’s almost all done. Almost. The mean for the final was about what I expected, in the low 60's. The distribution of overall grades in the class was also about what I expected. The smart students got A’s, the steinkopfs failed. But it’s not all over. The TA in charge of running the scantrons somehow missed five of them, and couldn’t find them until after I had submitted my grades to the registrar. So I’ll have to file some annoying paperwork on Monday, but then, I’ll relax. I’ll be finally finally done.

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