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On Tests and Exams
These are some random thoughts or advice about tests and exams, prepared in response to complaints about how hard or unreasonable or unfair some test or exam was.
Relativity is What Counts
Your actual mark in a test or exam isn’t very important. What matters is how well you do in comparison to everyone else in the class. Where marks in a paper are low overall at the end of the semester, we usually lower the pass mark and grade boundaries to ensure an adequate pass rate and grade distribution. Sometimes, in response to distress/outrage/murder threats I do explicitly scale up tests, but this is largely a PR exercise — it rarely has any effect on the resulting grades!
Exam Technique is Vitally Important
In nearly all Compuer Science exams, you are under some sort of time pressure. Unless you are in the top percent or so of the class, it is unrealistic to expect that you will have time to answer all questions really well. So — your goal is to make the best use of the time available. Different students have different techniques for exams, but the following works for most students.
- Spend the reading time at the start of the exam working out which questions are easy and which are hard.
- Do the easy questions first. This ensures:
- You don’t find yourself in the tragic position of running out of time without ever even starting the easy questions.
- You get your confidence up early, and lower the exam stress. If you’re feeling confident and unstressed, you’ll do a much better job on the harder questions.
- The first half of the marks in any question are usually much easier to get than the second half of the marks. This may or may not be obvious from the mark allocation, but occurs anyway as a result of our marking strategy: we try to give any student who attempts a question some reward, unless they write complete nonsense. As a consequence of this, you are better off attempting half of each question than attempting to complete half of the questions. At least make sure that you start each question.
- It follows from the previous point that you should be ruthless in your time allocation. During the reading time, work out how much time each mark is worth and when starting each question work out how much time the question is worth. When that time is up, give up and move to the next question. Otherwise, you’ll get bogged down wasting valuable time on the difficult questions. Remember that there are bound to be some questions you can’t do (how else are we to distinguish the really top students?) and you can’t afford to waste time on those questions.
- If you start to feel panicky, remind yourself that students around you are probably finding it hard too, and that what matters is relativity, not the actual mark you get.
Be a Winner not a Whinger
My observation is that good students rarely complain about how difficult or unfair life is — that’s the preserve of the weak student. Everyone sits the same exam, so in some sense there is no such thing as an “unfair” exam! Your task is to make the best of the situation, whatever it may be. Focusing your mind on the “unfairness” of a situation puts you in a negative mind set, and you won’t achieve at your maximum potential unless you’re thinking positively. Certainly, if it turns out that some students in the class manage to get close to full marks in some exam, any complaints about how unfair it was are going to fall on deaf ears. The saying “It’s a poor workman who blames his tools” has a counterpart in education: “It’s a weak students who blames the lecturer”.
Having said that, I do accept that sometimes we lecturers do need to be told to get our act together! So if things get out of hand in a paper, you do need to make your collective thoughts known. But try not to let your Fight for Justice take over your life and wreck your own personal progress!
That All For Now
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