Some rather unconsidered remarks regarding exams

Perusing some student feedback and giving my BIOMEDE 211 exams one final look over before I storing them safely and in FERPA compliance for the summer, I stumbled many comments on how hard my exams were especially once the material got difficult. This ranged from the legitimately (and helpfully) precise to the vaguely slighted. I think the range is helpful to look at in totality. Below follow a snippet of comments made about my exams and a few general remarks regarding the trends I see in the class, the legitimate grievances, and my general philosophy of higher education examination (especially in engineering). I basically want to show how I line up all this information currently in my brain. It is a way to both literally address these general trends and I hope show that even if I’m not doing it quite right yet, I have aspirations to.

[Emphasis added to taste.]

  1. I loved that the instructor was so open to feedback this entire term, and tried to make changes based on what worked and what didn’t. The only downside to this was that he sometimes treated this class as an “experiment” in teaching style, sometimes to the students’ benefit and sometimes to the students’ detriment. The first portion of the class was taught very well and I had no worries about Exam 1. However, the material on Exam 2 was notably more difficult, and the way it was taught just did not help me enough. This could be improved by focusing more on teaching students to solve actual circuit/op-amp examples rather than spending so much time on the theoretical/graphical explanations. I would also love to see a few more biomedical engineering examples incorporated into this course in the future to differentiate the course from other similar classes.
  2. Preparation for exams was very poor and this greatly affected my grade which made me very displeased. I feel it is respectful to me as a student to tell me what will be on the exam and prepare me for it adeptly. I feel this was not the case. I felt completely unprepared for 2 out 3 exams simply because I studied what I was led to believe was on the exams just to not see anything similar on exams. I find this outright disrespectful and felt belittled by the instructor for feeling this way. I do not feel this is conducive for a positive learning environment and believe students in the future should not have to deal with this.
  3. I really enjoyed the first half of this class (~ up until the first exam) after that not so much.
  4. Exam 2 was too difficult. On the exams I generally felt like I was going to do well but wasn’t always able to show my understanding of the material.
  5. Exams. Though yours are more fun, they’re still exams, and exams make me sad. 🙁
  6. No answer key for HWs or exams, at least even after they were graded. 🙁
  7. The exams. I wish they were more representative of the lectures and homework problems. I do not feel like this was a fair exam. I was not prepared to solve the majority of the problems and I do not think this was representative of what I have been taught in this class. I realize you are trying to challenge us and expose us to real world problems but I don’t think this is a good way to do so.
  8. Between the second exam and final there was a too little time and I felt a little burnt. Possibly moving Exam II to earlier might help.
  9. My least favorite part was the Laplace and s-domain material. Also the combination problem on this exam, really difficult to piece a lot of what we learned in this class all together.
  10. The exams, even though they make you think, I usually walked out feeling like I failed (not a good feeling).
  11. Test 2 and this one. 🙂
  12. The tests. I found that curveballs were thrown on the test in order to test our understanding but they were too successful and instead stressed out the student unnecessarily.
  13. The exams (2 and 3) – need more practice problems!
  14. My least favorite part of the class was the exams because I was always freaking out because they are very challenging.

I should stress here, the exams being referred to in these comments, I suppose, have the distinction of being my very first wholly designed exams. While I have given two exams before in ENGR 100, much of that material came from the previous instructor. So, I view their commentary as very real and would likely be very helpful to me especially here in my nascent career. Just giving them a skim a few things may crop up to the reader: exams mark changing points in student mindset (1, 2, 3); exams elicit strong (often negative) emotions (2, 5, 7, 10, 12, 14); exams are “challenging”/”difficult” (1, 4, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14); preparation is important (1, 2, 6, 7, 13); and exams provoke some rather fruitful language on our profession – (1) “experiment”; (2) “displeased”, “respectful”, “disrespectful”, “belittled”, “conducive”, “positive learning environment”, “believe students”, “the future”, “should not have to deal with this”; (4) “wasn’t able to show my understanding”; (5) “sad. :(“; (6) “:(“; (7) “representative”, “I do not feel”, “a fair exam”, “representative”, “what I’ve been taught in this class”, “I realize you are trying to challenge us”, “expose us to real world problems”, “a good way”, (8) “too little time”, “I felt a little burnt”, (9) “combination problem”, “really difficult”, “piece … all together”; (10) “I failed (not a good feeling)”; (11) “:)”; (12) “curveballs”, “test our understanding”, “too successful”, “stressed out the student unnecessarily”; (13) “need more practice problems”; (14) “least favorite”, “always freaking out”, “very challenging”. In time, I’ll try to address each of those points.

But isn’t that something?

On a first pass I propose to implement some form of the following changes (critiques welcome): 

  1. Leverage student’s perceptions of exams as challenges to promote achievement. I know many bemoan the mere participation trophy effect syndrome, but it’s one thing to be awarded for participated in neighborhood t-ball and another to recognize that being able to answer even one single question on an exam I give is better than no-joke, easily 300 million people in our country. I stand by that as my ballpark estimate of said achievement. And sorry, but yeah, post people can participate in tee-ball and tether ball and spelling bees and you get the point. Most, most, cannot answer one single question involving an operational amplifier nor its use in the active filtration of signals in biomedical instrumentation. Even the mere nonchalant comprehension of that sentence by the vast bulk of the students in the class speaks to the fact that they’ve learned something other people do not know. That something, I contend, is a portion of what it is to be and become an expert. And we are very much in need of biomedical experts, especially of the bioelectronic variety (in my ever so humble opinion).
  2. Perhaps use the significant event status of the exams to play to a three-act-structure. I’ve gone back and forth (and continue to do so) on whether to play up or down or straight to the left or right or askance or a skew or into or around or not at all into students’ expectations of exams. In just about any reckoning I come to on exams, students seem bent towards viewing them significantly. Arguably in part or in large part due to its weight on the grade. If they’re going to try to see it this way, I can play into that three act structure. We can influence students by recognizing the arcs of tragedy, of comedy, of triumph, of what they want to make of themselves in three parts. I proposed similar work in my initial on-site interview for my current position. A video of said proposed work is out there somewhere google-able for those inclined in that direction.
  3. Really give them (access to) way more practice problems than you think they can shake a stick at then maybe probably add a few more. The kids, as even a single semester’s observation of them can attest, can certainly shake their sticks. They want to know all the ways you can “know” this information. And I can understand and respect that. And I really am glad their so ferocious for it. I gave a set of 93 example problems for the first exam, I gave a set of 70 example problems for the second exam, I gave 20 problems for the third and final exam (including three problems that they were told would be on the exam and which were subsequently on the exam). All this to say, that’s ~180 problems directly crafted with exactly what I wanted these exacts students to know for these exacts tests. And they wanted more. What I think is rather heartening is that in most cases students are not strictly asking for answer keys (though some do, though they generally know it is a policy I do not on the whole agree with), but rather for more questions to answer. They want to exercise their own skills on the matter. I think this is due at least in part to the fact that I make these exams pretty extensively hard. Thus far – and it truly does pain me to say it – not one single student has walked out early from one of my exams in this circuits class. That is, I think we can all agree to an extent, a little disconcerting. Maybe they’re a little too hard. But they know it. And they want to practice more for it. And I like that kind of gumption. And I ought to support that kind of gumption. But it really does take quite some time to craft questions that you both essentially know the answers to and can prove to another human being well. So it’s something I ought to budget for during the course next time I teach it.