December
12th 2009
Exams during Exam Week? revisited, in which I check my privilege.

Posted under: jobs, students

Historiann1990

Historiann goofs!

Hi all–thanks for your feedback on yesterday’s post.  I threw it together quickly–unusual for me–and I was more than a little embarrassed to re-read it in light of many of your comments yesterday.  I wrote as a tenured professor with a 2-2 load who has a grader to assist with our large (100 to 123-student) classes, and didn’t consider how differently grading final exams and papers is when 1) one teaches 3 or 4 classes (or more!) per term, and 2) doesn’t necessarily have a T.A. or a grader, and especially 3) if one is on a quarter system, with a super-short Winter Break and/or a non-existent break in-between the winter and spring quarters.  As Ann Landers used to say:  my slip is showing!  I used to teach a 3-3 load, and I used to have non tenure-track jobs–how easy it was to forget those pressures once they were no longer mine!  So, I apologize for being a clueless oaf.  You all were a lot more polite than I deserved–but as always, good manners are appreciated here!

I should also have written more clearly–it’s the piling on of all final work in the last week of classes that is objectionable to me.  Submitting final papers in the last week of classes–especially if there’s no other work due or new material introduced–seems totally reasonable.  (As Bardiac noted in the comments, ze can then return the papers to the students on the last day of classes, with comments–something that those of us who accept the papers during exam week can’t offer our students.  I think I’m going to change the deadlines for my seminar papers from now on.) 

It’s the early in-class final that seems abusive of the students, IMHO, especially when (like many of my students this week) they have papers due in those same classes.  Over the years, I’ve become partial to the concept of giving the students as much time as possible so that they could–if they chose to–do their best work.  (Give ‘em enough rope, etc!  That way, I don’t have to hear the complaints.)  Although, as Profsweddy points out, when final exams administered during the last week of classes instead of exam week becomes the custom, students may also resent having to hang around campus during exam week while they wait to take your final. . .

Thanks for your patience with me, and for the thoughtful commentary on the pedagogy of exams.

20 Comments »

20 Responses to “Exams during Exam Week? revisited, in which I check my privilege.”

  1. Indyanna on 12 Dec 2009 at 10:30 am #

    Nuancification appreciated, but the call, here anyway, on yesterday’s post is no harm, no-goof. Everyone in this highly diversified industry has to take whatever nips and tucks and/or shortcuts they(we) all probably end up taking to fit the edu-process to their particular institutional calendars and other circumstances. That came out nicely in the range of comments. But the ongoing dance of sometimes-subversive cooperation between students and faculty against institutional rulemaking, and the inevitability that every solution will leave at least some stakeholders (smirk) pained and distressed, is one of the more interesting facts of academic life. And the post provided an enlightening opportunity to explore one example of that phenomenon.

    The only thing I’d say, having finally clicked on the initial link to the Washington State student editorial is: they have SIXTEEN WEEK semesters?!?! And the editorial board thinks this is barely enough time to get all of the needed learning in? I think “dead week” would literally be dead weak for most parties under that kind of a calendar. Whatever assignments you did or didn’t have would be merely post-mortem ceremonials.

  2. human on 12 Dec 2009 at 11:04 am #

    What I don’t get is why, in cases when you’re not on a quarter system with an extremely short break but you have a 3-4 week break between semesters – why would grades be due 48 hours after the final? (Not just after the LAST final but after YOUR final – that’s the policy at one university I am aware of.) Why even have that policy? The students aren’t going to explode if they have to wait a few more days… are they?

  3. Matt L on 12 Dec 2009 at 11:14 am #

    Historiann, like Indyanna, I appreciate the nuancification of your second post. I’m one of those people who teaches 4/4 with no TA or reader grader to help sort the wheat from the chaff. That said, my working conditions are pretty good. More importantly, I do my best to make my final exam policies fair to the students. Based on your post and the response of the commentators, it seems like most instructors do the same. Thats good news in light of the age of more excellence for less money.

  4. Historiann on 12 Dec 2009 at 12:22 pm #

    human–great points. (That 48-hours after YOUR last exam rule is really punitive! It’s almost like they’re begging you to skip final exams during finals week entirely, or to administer a multiple-choice test only.)

    I suppose that back in the olden days, when students’ grades would be mailed to them, having the grades due 3 or 4 days after the last final exam made sense, because of the bureaucratic obligations of the registrar’s office in printing up the grades and getting them recorded on transcripts. But here’s what I don’t get, either: why are my grades *still* due Tuesday, December 22 when I enter them myself into the frakkin’ computer, and they’re instantly visible to students? They can wait a little longer, IMHO.

  5. human on 12 Dec 2009 at 1:20 pm #

    Grades coming in the mail… I remember that! My parents would open mine before I even laid eyes on the envelope, and I would get mad. But yeah. Honestly, if you don’t create the expectation of such a quick turnaround by having that policy in the first place, I doubt the students would really think to care if it was 3 or 4 business days instead of 2.

    Maybe it’s something to do with the length of break. Because I guess, if you think about it, days that you are allotted to do your grading can also be considered days that you are expected to work. So by structuring it that way it looks, on paper, like you’re expecting faculty and TA/graders to work longer.

    Or maybe it’s just that they want to be able to send the staff in the registrar’s office home for winter break sooner. That would be understandable, actually.

    One question, Historiann… does your grader for your large class do all the grading? That’s how it’s set up at my university. If it’s the case at yours, I don’t know if “assist” is necessarily the word to use, at least in reference to grading final exams and papers…

  6. Homostorian Americanist on 12 Dec 2009 at 1:47 pm #

    I’m grading right now. Well, right now I’m commenting, but in a few short minutes I shall return to grading. And while I probably should have commented on yesterday’s initial post, I would like to concur: I resent those who give finals early at my school because then it means that my students are resentful and pestering about my sticking to the schedule. While I understand that those with higher teaching loads have greater reason to juggle their schedules, most people at Moo Moo U teach a 3/3 load and the exam schedule is set up with our faculty and students in mind. It’s also, you know, the rule.

    This is also how I feel about my colleagues who cancel their classes on the Monday or Tuesday before Thanksgiving (but only “at the last minute,” refusing to write it into the syllabus for fear of reprisals), making my Tuesday class look like a giant imposition, even when 98% of our students live *in state* and it will take them no more than a few hours *in a car* to get home and it will take me 8 hours total *on two planes.*

    As for papers, I always have them due before classes are over so that once I’m done grading exams, I’m done grading. But to each her own on that score, I say.

  7. Comrade PhysioProf on 12 Dec 2009 at 2:27 pm #

    (1) LMFAO at you in the dunce cap!!!1!11!!

    (2) I am so fucking glad that I don’t ever have to grade papers or exams.

  8. Historiann on 12 Dec 2009 at 2:29 pm #

    human–our T.A.s can only do a certain percentage of the work–I’m not sure what it is, because I never let mine do more than slightly more than half to 2/3 max. (I usually take about 1/3 of the papers or exams at the start, then I take care of the stragglers, makeups, problem papers or exams, etc.)

    So, I do a lot of grading, even with a grader. But to me, it would seem irresponsible not to do a healthy chunk of it, if only to monitor what the students are getting and what they’re not.

  9. Janice on 12 Dec 2009 at 2:43 pm #

    Our T.A.s can only work 10 hours a week for the academic term (so that works out to 130 hours a term) which also includes prep time, time for them to sit in class if it’s a lecture that’s a new background for them and office hours.

    That gets eaten up quickly, then. But, as you say, Historiann, we’ve got the privilege of a tenured job without the huge number of courses others manage (though the 230 essays I’m grading this week for three classes makes it feel pretty crappy for the moment). And I am confident enough to say “Screw you” to the admin when they try to demand my marks for the senior seminar on the last day of classes since I’m not administering a final exam.

    Someone without my security wouldn’t be able to and would be doing similar work for a very small fraction of my salary. I wouldn’t blame them if they went to scantrons!

  10. perpetua on 12 Dec 2009 at 2:59 pm #

    Part of my issue with in-class finals has to do with the time. For me a final should be comprehensive and require a certain amount of digestion and synthesis (qualities I don’t necessarily expect from a midterm), and I think this can be difficult to achieve with a 1 hr 20 minute deadline – or even worse, 50 minutes. What I like about proper finals is the students having the intellectual opportunity to sink into the exam, and think. Some don’t; they rush on through. But some stay to the end.

    I have to say as someone also mired in (grading) privilege – I used to teach in a quarter system where I always had two classes of 40 students each, and assigned 2 papers, a midterm, and a final in ten weeks + exam week. Going home on midterm day with a stack of 80 exams was doable of course, but HARD. I just want to extend my admiration to those of you who teach and grade much, much more than that.

  11. KoshemBos on 12 Dec 2009 at 3:30 pm #

    First reality check: grading exam is monotonic, laborious and depressing. My son, also a prof, and myself agree that in hell you sit all day and grade exams.

    In larger classes, one finds a lot of repetition in answers. Students are automatically grouped into a small number of groups with very similar responses in each group. (We see a class partition into distinct groups.) This makes grading much easier.

    Each exam you write test your ability to write exams. If you not doing it right, (vague language, unclear tasks, too much work,…), then you worker grading is harder.

  12. human on 12 Dec 2009 at 4:54 pm #

    Historiann – thank you for answering my question. That’s really interesting, about the percentage thing! Clearly there would be advantages to that approach for everyone concerned. Do the students know who is grading their papers? Do they care?

    One potential problem I would wonder about is consistency. It can be difficult to get a group of people on the same page about how to grade an essay, even when there is a rubric and all parties are motivated to agree on something (rather than argue just to be obnoxious, which is another fun possibility). But maybe it’s easier when there are only two people and the TA can just pitch any essay that doesn’t obviously fit into the rubric up to the prof. Do you ever have problems with that issue?

  13. The History Enthusiast on 12 Dec 2009 at 5:40 pm #

    My institution has 16 week semesters too! That is just interminably long, and it makes for very tired instructors and students. Instructors like myself get to do all the grading, and normally professors who have TAs or graders don’t do any grading whatsoever. They might look over the exams to see if TAs are being consistent, but even that only happens rarely.

    Thankfully we have until just after Christmas to upload our final grades, but I always finish before Christmas because who wants to be worrying about grading during what should be family time!

  14. Historiann on 12 Dec 2009 at 6:09 pm #

    16-week semesters here: 15 weeks of instruction, 1 week of exams. It’s about 2 weeks too long, IMHO.

    I like this from KoshemBos: “Each exam you write test your ability to write exams. If you not doing it right, (vague language, unclear tasks, too much work,…), then you work grading is harder.” I think that’s exactly right.

    human, at most big unis having a graduate student T.A. or grader is pretty standard, especially in lower-level courses. I’ve got a great grader this term–she’s on the same page with me, always, and I trust her judgment. I haven’t had any student complaints about the fairness of either of our grading standards. We have a rubric, so that helps keep everyone on the same page (graders & students alike). And as KoshemBos notes, thinking carefully about paper subjects and exam questions can make for better exams and easier grading.

  15. Sungold on 12 Dec 2009 at 8:18 pm #

    I just finished a three-course quarter with a total of 140 students – and yes, the grading was truly onerous. I did have a grader He is a lovely person but was 100% not up to the job. I ended up doing all the grading for a writing-intensive course with 80 students.

    So I’m one of the less-privileged folks. But I still cheered when I saw the preceding post, HIstoriann, because at my institution it’s sure not the contingent faculty who give the early exams. It’s some of the more established folks who jump the gun. This puts the squeeze on the rest of us, whose students are often eager to finish early – never mind that they really need a few more days for studying.

    I sometimes think the whole goofy system was set up by folks who give Scantron exams. I can certainly see why people would resort to them.

    Anyway, thanks for a couple of thoughtful posts.

  16. HistoryMaven on 13 Dec 2009 at 9:31 am #

    When I taught large courses I had a grader or graders now and then. We used rubrics, and I graded my share–usually I graded the comprehensive essay in every exam while the graders took care of the other answers. I was able, then, to look over all the exams for consistency in grading. There have been times, however, where my graders failed to “get it” and I graded everything.

    I miss reading week–or even two or three reading days. My last university chucked them before I arrived. Students were stressed to begin with; even several days at the end of the semester would have helped. I made it a practice to feed my students before the final exam–I know, I know, it was expensive and some of my former colleagues thought it cast bad light on them, but the students really appreciated it. (Some of them had no money nor points on their meal cards.) They arrived early to the exam, sat back and had a doughnut or an orange and coffee or milk or juice, and some of the anxiety disappeared. And they felt that somehow making it to the final and finishing the term warranted a celebration.

    (I didn’t appreciate, though, the one time some professor from management stopped by and grabbed doughnuts and coffee for himself. He didn’t even flinch when I explained the table full of goodies were for my students and paid for out of my pocket. I decided against telling him he had powdered sugar on his beard.)

    The university, in recent years, has come down hard on professors who give their finals in the last week of classes. Classes are required to meet during finals week, so there are more finals given and more upper-division courses having final presentations in that 3-hour time period.

  17. Historiann on 13 Dec 2009 at 9:53 am #

    HistoryMaven wrote, “I didn’t appreciate, though, the one time some professor from management stopped by and grabbed doughnuts and coffee for himself. Heh. Isn’t that typical, and symbolic of the relationship of the liberal arts to the rest of the university? At Baa Ram U., we’re producing the lion’s share of the FTEs, and someone from Business, Engineering or Education literally barges in an eats our lunch (or breakfast, as it were.)

    Sungold, I think you’re right that it’s not contingent faculty but the regular faculty who tend to push the envelope. (After all, regular faculty are much safer if they give an early final, or turn their grades in late, or both.)

  18. polisciprof on 13 Dec 2009 at 11:08 am #

    Here is another twist on the story… Like Indyanna, I follow our union policy on exams in the last week of classes and during finals week. It is not unusual, however, for a student to ask me to take an exam at a different time because another professor has changed an exam time.

    Invariably, the professor who changed the time is male, and I, now being asked to accomodate the student, am female. I’m sure this is another of the problems of being a “nice lady”. It takes a lot for a student (in this case also female) to assert their rights to a fair exam schedule so you go to the most sympathetic prof first, rather than the one who is in the wrong.

  19. Sungold on 13 Dec 2009 at 11:23 am #

    There’s one other way in which privilege enters into the early-exam issue, and that’s the students’ privilege – or lack thereof – which HistoryMaven’s donut story brings to the fore.

    Students with shaky finances may be working a job 15 to 20 hours or more per week. They may not be able to cut back their hours when their schoolwork is heavy. Piling exams into the last week of the term will hit them far harder than those students who don’t have money worries.

  20. Historiann on 13 Dec 2009 at 11:59 am #

    Great point, Sungold.

    polisciprof: nice colleages you got there! I haven’t heard of this problem before, but why am I not surprised? I have been approached by students with sob stories about how much work they have due in one particular week, and can’t they get an extension from me please? I always say no, because my deadlines (unlike others imposed by other faculty) are on the syllabus and are therefore known on the very first day of classes. I don’t get the impression they go ask their chem or bio teachers for extensions on their lab reports, etc.