Test Time 2/23/20

On Taking Exams by Richard Bleil

On the day of writing this post (a few days before it’s published), my class is taking an exam. The subject (which will be no surprise for my regular readers) is chemistry, a subject that is challenging for many students. Especially at eight in the morning. I know now why they execute prisoners at dawn; who wants to live at 8 in the morning???

Through the years I’ve had some interesting things happen during exams. For example, I ran into a student of mine a couple of years after he had taken my class in the grocery store. “You had no idea,” he said, “but I was completely wasted when I took your final exam.” I replied, “you have no idea, but I know you were.”

Faculty are not as clueless as students often believe. We actually do notice things. If we choose not to bring attention to it, that doesn’t mean it’s not obvious.

I had an interesting argument with a student taking an exam that involved solubility. Solubility is the maximum amount that a solute can dissolve in a solvent. There are several factors that can affect this, such as temperature and other substances in the solution, but one thing that does not affect solubility is stirring. A common misconception is that stirring causes something to dissolve, when, in fact, all it really affects is how quickly the solute dissolves. If we stir sugar into our tea, the stirring doesn’t increase the amount of sugar that will dissolve, it just means that we don’t have to sit around until the tea gets cold before it does dissolve.

The question was multiple guess, something along the lines of “blank does NOT increase solubility”. The correct answer, of course, was “stirring”. The student in question never (quite literally never) showed up for lecture; he showed up to take exams and that was all. After taking the exam, he argued that stirring does affect solubility. No, it doesn’t, I covered this quite carefully in class (and students who miss class are responsible for getting the material they missed). He opened up his book, and showed me the section heading “Factors that Affect Solubility.” Okay. Then he showed me the sub-section entitled “Stirring”. Therefore, he argued, stirring DOES affect solubility. I then pointed out the VERY FIRST sentence of that section, which read “Stirring does not affect solubility.” But, he wouldn’t let it go. “It’s a heading in the book under factors that affect solubility, so it should be counted as correct!” Are you kidding me? He wanted the point back because he never ready beyond the heading? Good luck with that.

One of my students from many years ago had a habit I truly enjoyed watching. Throughout the exam, she would periodically sit back, look up, and move her lips as if mumbling to herself, then straighten back up and write an answer down. It was clear she wasn’t cheating; she wasn’t speaking to anybody, never made an audible sound and her neighbors never responded. It was just how she thought. Compare this with a student who was taking an exam, looked at his neighbor’s test, then back at his, then his neighbors, then erase his answer and put something else down. I took the liberty of comparing his test with his neighbor’s, and one could clearly see where he erased his answer to match hers. The funny thing is that his answer, the one he erased, was almost always the correct one. Karma I guess. She seemed unaware of his activities (I watched closely and she never moved as if she knew he was copying) so I’m guessing she was innocent, but I sat him down in my office and went through both exams, question by question, and showed how his answers were changed to match her incorrect answers. He still denied it. I can tell you he didn’t get away with it, though.

This year (starting last semester), I handed out a four-sided dice to each of my students (the proverbial “D4” dice). We will use it in class as a visual aid for the shape of carbon atoms (tetrahedral and derivatives thereof), but it’s also an aid to help with test anxiety. A number of years ago, an interesting study was published suggesting that students that struggle with test anxiety get demonstrably higher grades if they hold something in their off hand while taking exams. The hypothesis is that you don’t use your entire brain during exams, and the part that you are not using is busy telling you that you won’t do well on the test. When they hold something in their off hand, subconsciously they will begin to fiddle with it. This doesn’t distract from the part of the brain focused on the test, but will detract from the part of the brain telling them that they’re not good enough, thereby quieting that nay-saying voice. Of course, I warn them not to roll the dice because the clanking sound will be a distraction for other students, but I know of at least one student who was completely enthralled and attributed his passing grade in statistics to the dice that I had given him. I hope it helps other students as well.

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