Thursday, April 12, 2007

On Early Exams

That feeling that the semester is coming to an end is slowly filling the air. It arrives unerringly at this time of the year, as predictably as the Springtime. Suddenly, my e-mail inbox is full of urgent e-mails from students.

At the current time, the major concern seems to be about their final research papers. It always amazes me that students can read the work of philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, or Berkeley, yet do not manage to learn to spell their names correctly ('DesCarte', 'Lock' or 'Barkley'). The recent e-mails are the usual mixed bag.

However, what was interesting today was that I got my first "can I take the exam early?" request. This has to be something of a record. Usually, these show up much later. At least on the plus side, it shows that at least one student has well developed time management and planning skills.

Early exam requests always present something of a quandary. As a general rule, our institution has some (for once) sensible guidelines which do not favor early exams. There can be exceptions though. If one or two students need an early exam, then one has two options. Option One involves giving these students the same exam as the rest of the class, but early. Option Two involves giving these students a different final exam. Neither option is ideal.

The downside with Option One is that it means that other students can discover what is going to be on the exam. No matter how much the students promise to keep things secret, this can produce negative effects. There are always leaks. If students have an idea of what will be covered, then they will not learn the parts of the material that will not be focused upon. This mitigates against them getting the 'big picture' view of the material.

Option Two also has several drawbacks. The most obvious one of these is all the extra work involved in writing a second exam. However, there are further problems that can arise with respect to standardizing scores. It is very difficult to tell whether one exam is harder than the other. If only a small group of students take one version, it is quite tricky to figure this out. As I am quite fussy about ensuring that final grades reflect a student's actual performance in the class, this situation totally messes up my system.

Given these problems, I am against early exams, as there is no good way to handle such a situation. It is for this reason that I am just hoping that no student comes up with a really compelling reason why they should be able to take their exams early this semester. My fingers are crossed.

The CP

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