Exam week is in the air. I finished writing the Internet law final about an hour ago and am, at 9:30 on a Saturday night, still at the computer. (If you wonder why my wife is putting up with me being such a rocking bundle of fun, she is away for the weekend.) All day–well not really all day, the emails didn’t start until after noon or, as it is known to college students, the crack of dawn–I’ve been hearing from students with I’m-planning-to-study-soon questions (“when will you be in your office?”), I’m-studying-right-now questions (“can you confirm my understanding of generic marks is correct?” [yes, it is], I’m-just-now-encountering-the-material-for-the-first-time questions (“can you explain copyright law?”), and I’m-not-studying-right-now-but-I’m-also-at-my-computer-on-Saturday-night commentary (an interesting and entertaining discussion of ethnic identity and the best cannoli in Boston). The full range of study-period expression.
Anyone got extra hyphens? I’m running out.
Students have been visiting office hours to review their contracts law exam. When they see the right answer for the questions the got wrong they exclaim “oh, man!!!,” over and over. Often they realize why their answer is wrong without having to ask me for the correct one. “Oh, man!” is the verbal equivalent of slapping oneself on the forehead, “how could I be so stupid!” in four fewer words. Somehow this reinforces my reputation for “tricky exams,” as if my power over language only reveals a question’s true intent weeks after being read or the questions reword themselves after the exam is taken. Male, female, domestic student or International, “oh, man!!” is the song on everyone’s lips this week in SMG 644.
Today was the ninth class session out of 27. One-third of the semester is in the past. I will read, comment on, and score or grade about 650 pieces of student writing this semester. I have completed about 240 of them, or 37%. I will give about 516 individual exams, most of which will consist solely of multiple-choice questions that are Scantron graded. About 22% will be scored, evaluated, and graded by the end of this weekend. For the first time students are not completing Internet law case analyses in eleven separate batches, but whenever they have the time and inclination to write them. Two of the three required analyses are in and some students have completed half of the maximum. I know most but not all of my student’s names. I tried to match names and faces during today’s exams, scoring about 90%. A few students sitting outside their normal area threw me off my game.
I cannot explain why I am being this anal. For some reason the always-rapid passage of the semester and regular flow of written work made me think in these terms. I don’t see any lessons. Students may conclude I assign too much work.
Semester-end thoughts, in no particular order.
- A few years after starting teaching I added two pages of frequently asked questions to my syllabus. (Sample FAQs include I have another class/I work during your scheduled office hours. When can I meet with you? and Are the exams really open-book and open-notes?) I realized soon that students didn’t read the FAQs, and likely did not read the syllabus either. I then added an easter egg to the end of the FAQs asking students to send me an email that they had read them and not to tell classmates about this request. It doesn’t help or hurt students to respond. It’s there just to satisfy my curiosity. I’ve kept track of the response rate in the eight or so semesters since. The first semester’s response rate was about 30%. The response rate has trended up since then, reaching 85%–47 out of 55 students–in one section this semester. 36 of 48 students–75%–responded in the other section. The reason, I think, has nothing to do with conscientiousness, but word-of-mouth: “Make sure you read all of Randall’s syllabus. There’s a trick in there.” Whatever the reason, I’m happy if they read it.
- Most students respond to the FAQs in the period from one week before to two weeks after classes begin, but responses trickle in throughout the semester. The record for latest response had belonged to a student who emailed me on the morning of the final exam. As all records should be, that one was broken last week when a student responded to the FAQs the day after the final exam.
- More students may read the FAQs but for most the information doesn’t sink in. They still ask the same questions. The difference now is that a query about an FAQ topic provokes knowing looks from the students who’ve read and remembered the information.
- The FAQs are not just to inform students; they keep me in line. My class policies were not handed down from the mountain top. Climbing the teaching learning curve I made my life difficult a few times by providing contradictory information to the same questions. Writing it all down allows this Socratic response: “Well, what do the FAQs say about that?” The questioner and I can then retreat to look up the FAQs and find the answer.
I have a few more papers to grade and I wrap up exams next Friday. Until I can finally crawl out from this pile of paper, here are two random-yet-fascinating diversions:
Why is this day different from all other days: Tony Blair, Willie Mays, Sigmund Freud, and Orson Welles were all born today, May 6, plus Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile barrier on this day in 1954.
Telecomedy, or The Limits of Antitrust: Stephen Colbert explains the history of AT&T. (Thanks, RZ)
The New York Times reports that the Middlebury College history department has banned citations to Wikipedia as a resource for papers and exams, after six students in a Japanese history class asserted an incorrect fact on an exam. The department did not ban use of Wikipedia, recognizing that doing so “would have been impractical, not to mention close-minded, because Wikipedia is simply too handy to expect students never to consult it.” I asked students today about their use of Wikipedia as a research tool. One rejected it categorically, because she is uncomfortable with a resource that can be so readily changed. Others were not aware of the “peer-production” aspects of Wikipedia. One student said Wikipedia was better than 15 bound encyclopedias because it is up-to-the-minute and conveys information on more topics. A few students described Wikipedia metaphorically as like a conversation with a friend who holds himself out as knowledgeable: it can be a good place to go for ideas and overall information, but should not be relied on as a sole source. They said that they investigate the sources Wikipedia cites before relying on any of it. How to determine whether an Internet source is reliable is another question, of course.
There are no conclusions to draw from these anecdotes. This classroom was not a cozy forum for a student to acknowledge Wikipedia as his or her sole source for academic knowledge. Most students were quiet, and some may have wondered what the fuss is about.
I will continue to worry that too many people can’t distinguish between good and bad information, online and off. Wikipedia isn’t the cause, but it can be a symptom.
My Introduction to Law students take their first exam today. Many are wondering how to prepare for my multiple-choice, open-book exams–clearly, they reason, such an exam will not consist of definitions. A recurring theme in yesterday’s discussions during my office hours was the contrast between the “binary thinking” (yes/no, black/white, right/wrong) characteristic of many math, science, and engineering courses and the “maybe this, maybe that” thinking characteristic of legal analysis. One student said to himself as he stood to leave my office, “think gray.”
Excellent advice for students of the law: Think Gray. Just remember that on each multiple-choice question, there will be one answer that is better than the rest.