Exams: Hard vs. Unfair

Exams: Hard vs. Unfair (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

As students got their first look at the final exam for “American Lit 1800-1915” the other day, a few gasped, “This is hard!”

One student shushed the others. “It’s not all that hard if you think before you write.”

Our classroom culture was open and friendly enough that the gasping and the shushing was just normal banter. The shusher had obviously figured out that the identification questions weren’t testing memory, but testing your ability, knowing what the major themes and narrative characteristics of the works we studied, to deduce which passage came from where.

For example… a passage full of slang and dropped g’s is probably not from Emerson or Thoreau. A passage full of long, philosophical words is probably not from the legend of John Henry.

One student, when adding her paper to the stack near the end of the exam period, said: “I’m a chemistry major, and that was the hardest exam I’ve ever taken.”

She wasn’t glowering or complaining. I don’t think she was trying to suck up. She was just stating an observation.

I took it as a compliment. “Thank you!” I beamed.

She returned my smile with a friendly wish for a good holiday.

I figure it’s my job to challenge students. While nobody is perfect, here was an affirmation that I’m doing well in that area. Our exchange would have had a completely different tone if she he’d said the test was “unfair” — in student speak, often a synonym for “hard”.

I’ll curve the exam, of course… but students who work hard all term deserve the chance to demonstrate just how good they really are. They all deserve an intellectual challenge, and I’m happy to give it to them. It’s only fair.

3 thoughts on “Exams: Hard vs. Unfair

  1. Dennis,
    Dr. Preston allowed me to give her Novel students another quiz as a chance to demonstrate more aggressive teaching, so here is what I came up with. I asked students to re-read one part from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Part Two and then read Scott McCloud’s discussion about comic panels and how people read them. Using a scanner, some cut and paste action, plus one page from the graphic novel, the questions were:

    1) Here’s a story. Arrange these panels in the proper order using numbers 1-9 (9 points).
    2) How do you define intertextuality exiting this course? (1 point)

    The format is the same as my last quiz. One question involving sequence and recall along with one question requiring analytical thinking. Surprisingly, my difficult quizzes did not damage the rapport I had with those students, even after telling them “I took it this morning. I got a C.” =)

  2. Dennis,
    “Hard” is almost never the same as “unfair.” Just ask any of the students who finished my calculus 3 exam on Thursday morning. It was monstrously difficult, but that’s to be expected from the third semester of calculus – look at all of the preliminaries! I curve too, but only after the exams are graded!

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