Thursday, December 18, 2008

Exam Fun

Ten minutes of nine, and there are 19 bright and eager masters students already present to take their Oncogenetics exam. (I attribute ‘bright’ and ‘eager’ as givens. In fact, these kids are on their 5th exam of the week and most of them look quite fried in the brain.) Most of them are even seated, alternate seats only, thank you, with their pencil cases out and their binders full of notes ready. And we’re talking serious pencil cases. You thought you saw pencil cases in second grade when you were just discovering them - these pencil cases never shrank down to whatever chewed Ticonderoga made it into your pocket in high school; these pencil cases have grown into Serious Big Person pencil/pen/eraser collections. Fountain pen, black pen, red pen, blue pen, green pen, black-red-blue-green all-in-one pen, white-out pen: the minimal collection.

The last student slides into her place at 8:57, and they are allowed to start. Two hours of Scientific Adventure! For a minute I consider taking the exam myself, just to see how long it takes and how hard it is, but then reason gets the better of me. I’ll be doing this exam 20 times over during the holiday break for their grades. One more time just for warmup? Nahhhh.

I’ll just work on my holiday cards. And then I’ll just do these diabolical sudokus. And then, uh, stare at the ceiling. And then try to learn the rest of their names by matching faces to their ID cards. The guys are all easy. Guys looks don’t change much in one semester. Half the girls are easy to match up, but the others, I swear that’s not them. Not one of them has a crazed smile or big hair today. And they’re all wearing grey, or black, or blue, or some combination. Very dreary colors today. Not a red shirt or a green sweater in sight. No yellow, no white, no pink, no orange. The somber dress adds to the somber atmosphere.

I’d love to get up and get a coffee or hot chocolate from the machine in the hall, but it seems so unfair to come back in here with that, the warm scent filling the air. I can have cocoa, and you can’t...

Thinking of drinkage (“Beverages” is out. “Drinkage”, like its companion “snackage” is in. No matter what the spellchecker says.), the bottled water mania seems to have taken a break today. Not a single bottle of Volvic or Cristalline or Evian or Comtrex to be seen. Last year there was a bottle on every table. Two people have snacks. Make that one. The other just has difficult gum.

It would be quiet in here were it not for all the pens clacking. 20 students means about 60 pens are in use. They each have a main pen. Then there’s a pen of a different color, for emphasis. They’re taught to do that somewhere, they must be! Some have pens of different different colors, for different categories of emphasis. Or they may just like to make their pages pretty. Plus the white-out pen. A handy thing. Just try reading through lots of cross-outs. So that’s three or more. Then some of them have an array of highlighters, and I see that they’re even taking the time to highlight the test paper. One guy, he’s got two highlight colors on his test. Hmm. Whatever works. But anyway, with all those pens, and only one pen in hand at any one time, there’s quite a clacking of pens as they’re capped, put down, sorted through, uncapped... A pen frenzy.

The students are allowed to have notes with them, and a French-English dictionary (the exam paper is in English). I don’t see anybody using their dictionary. They shouldn’t really need it. Technical terms won’t be in there anyway. For all the notes they’ve brought, only a couple of people consult them. There are guys with huge binders, all tabbed and organized; not one of the big binders gets opened. Perhaps if you have too much stuff there to help you, there isn’t time to sort through it to find the one thing that’s really useful.

Toward the end, there is some riffling through the notes. They have to integrate the results of the test paper into a model, and they should have sketches of this model somewhere in there... I don’t know how much it really helps to have the notes. Perhaps some of them score an extra point from having just the right schema at hand. Probably not more than that. From some of the exams I’ve graded, I’d swear the student pulled out a schema that was just a little bit off the subject, and copied it instead of building his own schema from the data at hand. So that would be negative points; maybe it evens out.

A couple of times I’m caught napping, er, doing suduku, and miss a student in need of an extra blank page. I’m supposed to hand them around instead of making people get up and disrupt their train of thought. They started out with two blanks (they’re double-pages folded in half to make 4 pages of writing space each), which is enough for about two-thirds of the class. One person finishes on a single sheet.

And that’s it.
Fold up your sheets; don’t forget to put your name on Each One.
Hey, I mean it; time is up.
Stop that writing. Stoppit. Give me that.
But I’m nice. I let everyone finish a sentence or two. Sometimes I get exams cut off in mid

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