Re: Final Exams

1

At the other extreme, my understanding is that in the Oxbridge system grades are entirely determined by final exams.

I wouldn't like a system that puts any significant fraction of the grade in in-class activities like quizzes, because I don't think students should be forced to go to class.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 9:55 AM
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Requiring students to show up long enough to take a short quiz doesn't seem that onerous.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 10:00 AM
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I like finals. Gives students like me a chance to make up for not having done a damn thing the rest of the semester.

Also, I agree with essear about quizzes. Missed so many of those things.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 10:12 AM
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I'm willing to believe that different levels of autonomy are appropriate for different students, and that Heebie U students will thrive under closer monitoring than either Essear or Sifu require.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 10:15 AM
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It should not be possible to get top marks in a final without a fair level of mastery of the entire course material, period. Otherwise, why bother?


Posted by: grumps | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 10:21 AM
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Well, the final exam grade is only worth about 30% of my total semester grade. So it's not like they're getting a free pass on the semester; it's like that 30% is easier than the 50-60% that came from tests.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 10:26 AM
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Twenty years after graduating from college, I still have the "OMG, it's the final exam and I haven't studied!" nightmare once a year or so.

Because these nightmares invariably have me sitting for the exam in the traditional setting of Memorial Hall, my semi-lucid self has occasionally been able to puncture the dream by saying "This can't be a final exam. Memorial Hall has been rebuilt and converted to other uses now!"


Posted by: Knecht Ruprecht | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 10:50 AM
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For instance, they have good, cheap beer in the basement.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 11:06 AM
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Hey I got linked to on the front page!

As I indicate in my original post, I take the exact opposite approach to essear. I also think this approach is appropriate for both students like mine and HBGB's and for smarty-pants students who are used to getting by on native intelligence and a little last minute studying.

One of the most important functions of evaluations is to signal what you think is important and how you want the students to study. All the psychological research points to the general idea that periodic studying over a long period of time is better for learning than cramming sessions. So this is what I want my students to be doing: working on my material, several times a week for the whole semester. This maximizes the chance that they actually learn something.

As far as master Tweety's comments go, I think the last thing you want to do as a teacher is to build your pedagogy around what you liked and disliked as a student. First of all, if you have gone on to be a teacher, you probably weren't a typical student. But even if you were, the stuff that irritated you the most as a student was probably the stuff that it was hardest for you to do, ie, the stuff you need to work on the most.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 11:10 AM
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Helpy-Chalk's final line:

I think this definitely works for math-like subjects. The issue is more complicated for the humanities.

This pretty much covers my own first response to the OP, which was: weekly 5-minutes quizzes and similar things don't make sense for many of the humanities, so I think this post is less than relevant there.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 11:10 AM
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Weekly 5-minute quizzes make lots of sense for language instruction (particularly the dead, inflected languages that I teach).


Posted by: oudemia | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 11:16 AM
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But even if you were, the stuff that irritated you the most as a student was probably the stuff that it was hardest for you to do, ie, the stuff you need to work on the most.

If those things are not relevant to learning the material covered in the class, what's the point of working on them?

That said, I'm being a little glib. It's worth pointing out that, while passably clever, I was anything but a good student, and (obviously) I retained the most information from the classes where I did (had to do) the most work. That didn't directly correlate with doing well in the classes, but if doing well in a class was directly indicative of how much you learned the world would be a very different place.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 11:19 AM
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One class that I found absolutely infuriating was my philosophy class in community college. In addition to the fact that our book made copious use of cartoons (and we didn't read any original texts) the instructor (in an attempt to be helpful and/or kind) structured the course so that all you were graded on was a series of weekly 250 word essays (that couldn't be late) on somewhat arbitrary topics. At the accounting at the end of the semester it was determined that my grade worked out to a D, despite the fact that I clearly knew much more about the course material than anybody else in the class (and had done the reading, showed up every time, and participated in discussions). I convinced the teacher to let me do a special final exam on the contents of the book (which nobody else had been tested on) with the agreement that if I did well enough on the exam I could bring my grade up to, at maximum, a B.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 11:23 AM
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11: As does regular class attendance, but yeah, otherwise I'm with Tweety in 3.1. And I still have those dreams, like, every month or so. Now that I look back on it, school was pretty traumatic from about fifth grade until the bitter end.


Posted by: Jesus McQueen | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 11:36 AM
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weekly 5-minutes quizzes and similar things don't make sense for many of the humanities, so I think this post is less than relevant there

I tend to substitute high frequency short writing assignments of the rough form: make some intelligent connection between the reading and the material from lecture. I should be grading some of these right now, in fact, or else writing up my midterm, but instead I think I am going to take a lovely hot shower.


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 11:47 AM
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My worst class this semester complained at the beginning of the semester that there was too much reading they had to do, and then that there wasn't enough to talk about in class. They complain that other people talk too much, but they don't want to talk. My questions should be easier, like "What happens in the book?" but not too specific because then it's like a quiz. Oh, and the assignments are worth too much of the total grade. Instead of giving more assignments, just make them worth less. Also, it's midterms and I haven't even told them what all the questions and answers will be on the final exam. Also, as one student put it to me, reading is really hard? And takes a long time? And he's calculated it out and he's just not going to do it anymore, and hopes I understand and don't just fail him "out of spite."

I don't think I've ever had a group of students I despise more. But actually, it's really like four people, and they suck all the energy out of the room.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 11:50 AM
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9 So this is what I want my students to be doing: working on my material, several times a week for the whole semester. This maximizes the chance that they actually learn something.

But that's what homework is for. Quizzes, by their nature, don't involve enough work to do much reinforcing of anything.

Everything I say of course comes with the caveat that I have never taught. Also that I have in mind physics and maybe math classes. (Though I almost never skipped a math class in college. Partly because they almost never followed textbooks.) Obviously language classes are totally different -- there being in class is absolutely essential -- and discussion-based classes are also very different.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 11:51 AM
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15: I do that every day, but don't grade them. I just read them and think about their progress. Really, it's just a chance for them to think about what they read and prepare for the discussion, or explain to me that they're falling behind and need to catch up. And, as I tell them, they really don't want a grade on their most initial thoughts about something, right? Grades are for formal work.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 11:53 AM
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Coming from the British system this all seems a bit odd. I've been through Glasgow and Oxford, and in every case the final mark was entirely on the combination of final exams and a thesis. However, undergraduates at Glasgow were examined more often as undergrads prior to the finals. Termly exams, in most cases, which were a big deal -- exam hall, invigilation, etc. American students always seem like [insert gendered/sexist word for persons lacking in fortitude]. I don't know how many 'final' exams I've sat, but many dozens, certainly.

Also, wtf re: 250 word essays. I had a tutor at Glasgow who liked to set those, but they were deliberate challenges, given to high-performing students who'd already done a shit-load of 1500-3000 word essays. You'd learn fuck all, I'd have thought, if that was all you did?


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 11:58 AM
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You'd learn fuck all, I'd have thought, if that was all you did?

That seems to be what happened, yes. As far as I can tell the woman teaching the class decided that the best she could manage was to convince the students to come to class, talk about philosophical concepts, and think in a general way about what that might mean.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:02 PM
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FWIW, I have very old fashioned views on the role of the final exam in the humanities; and am pretty strongly opposed to continuous assessment.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:03 PM
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re: 20

Well, that's more or less philosophy seminars are like, even at the best of times. You turn up, you discuss stuff, you leave. But if you aren't learning to write properly as an adjunct to that ...


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:06 PM
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19.1: Yes, overall there's a culture of wheedling here.


Posted by: Minivet | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:06 PM
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I have become more suspicious of continuous assessment because it's not a good measure of what students are actually getting from the class in the end, and it doesn't encourage mentoring. I assign one or two papers along the way, but usually there's a revision process for students who are underperforming so they can learn the skills they need to do good work on the final project and/or exam.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:07 PM
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I was pretty fond of take-home finals in math classes. They were often difficult as hell, but at least there was less time pressure, and the questions were usually more interesting than a one- or two-hour in-class final.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:11 PM
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re: 23

Yeah, bollocks to that. I used to get a bit of it when I was teaching, and was sympathetic to requests to hand in work later when there was a good reason, and (obviously) happy to set tutorial work appropriate to the student's abilities and workload, but other than that, attempts to wheedle got short fucking shrift.

re: 24

The Oxford system sets lots of unmarked essays, which are teaching tools, so students can do them without worrying that they'll alter their final mark. I think that's fairly healthy, some of the time, although it can be abused, of course.

But I heartily approve of exams marked by someone other than the teacher, and where the exam scripts are anonymised; at least partly as a way of stamping down on wheedling.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:11 PM
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22: sure, but I would have liked more reference to thinkers who were not actually present in the classroom, no(t much) disrespect intended to the philosophical instincts of my classmates.

Teaching them to write properly almost certainly was a lost cause, if the English classes I was obliged to take at the same instution were any indication.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:11 PM
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re: 27

Heh, yes. I did imagine that there was at least some attempt to address what philosophers actually say or have said about the topic.

Teaching writing is hard, and people don't like being taught how to write, because, basically, there's no way to do it without repeatedly telling people how shit they are. It's labour intensive, and can be demoralising, even when the person doing the teaching is trying very hard to adopt a friendly, positive-reinforcement sort of approach.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:15 PM
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One other aspect of this that might be relevant: from what I've seen professors having to deal with, final exams are rarely just an in-class exam and then over. Hordes of students now have all sorts of "disability accomodations" for attention-deficit and things like that, which require that they be given arbitrarily long amounts of time to complete the exams. The onus is on the professors to find time and to sit nearby and "proctor" these never-ending finals for the "disabled" students.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:16 PM
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+m


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:17 PM
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re: 29

As I said, at British universities, final exams are a big deal. You go to a big hall, and you sit with dozens or even hundreds of other students, and there are people invigilating, and you are writing on standard papers, marked by people other than your teacher. The minute you make the final exam purely the responsibility of the teacher, of course they aren't going to want to do them properly.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:21 PM
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I'm currently teaching an MA course to a bunch of smart, eager students who struggle to do an enormous amount of difficult reading for the class, and our discussions are fantastic. But their first papers were almost uniformly terrible--just book reports and plot summaries, when I clearly asked for them to make an analytical argument. Many of them seem to think an A paper is one in which all the words are spelled correctly and nothing stated in it is completely false. I told most of them to rewrite it, and some of them cried. We're working on it.

But I've heard from a lot of professors in the program that they don't feel their job is to mentor MA students as scholars; most of them are "just" going to be high school teachers anyway, and their papers are so bad they just stopped assigning papers to MA students, or they inflate the grades to the students' expectations.

It's really not fun to be teaching graduate students the same writing skills I'm also teaching to freshmen, but someone has to do it, right? I think part of it might be that a relatively bright undergrad with good mechanics tends to think, that's it, I know how to write, but without realizing that there are a lot of different styles to learn, and academic papers should be written as if for someone you don't think is an idiot.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:23 PM
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re: 32

Yes, teaching writing is really difficult to do, and impossible to do if your institution or the structure of your course makes it hard to _make_ people do the stuff they have to do to get better at it. Also, I get the impression that at a lot of institutions a big part of the problem is people just don't write enough. You only get better at it if you do it a LOT.

Also, "some of them cried", ffs. But yes, this. I don't think I've ever had a student in tears, but I've certainly had people deeply affronted that someone has the temerity to point out that their shit stinks.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:30 PM
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I love the word "invigilation". It sounds like an intermediate-level ritual in Freemasonry.

32: Wow, I assumed the graduate school admissions process would winnow out bad writers. Was this MA students from all departments?


Posted by: Minivet | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:35 PM
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re: 34

Once, at Oxford, I was asked to invigilate for a student who had been unable to take an exam [she'd had a clash between two subjects so couldn't sit at the proper time]. So it was just two of us, in a tiny summer-house in one of the colleges. Made more bizarre by the fact that we were both in full robes, etc. because those are the rules.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:38 PM
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Made more awesome.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:47 PM
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invigilation

This sounds like something evil done to children in a Philip Pullman novel.


Posted by: Bave Dee | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:47 PM
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38

So who does grade ("mark") at Oxford?


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:51 PM
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34.2: Nope, my department. Their writing may be bad because, for some of them, this is the first course they've ever taken in pre-Victorian lit, and as I know from teaching poetry, when students feel intimidated by the material, they can't write for shit. Maybe when they write about books about their own time and place, they feel competent enough to have ideas about them.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:52 PM
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Sifu should name his killer robot the Invigilator.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 12:54 PM
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I think "finals only" only succeeds if the final is very hard, to the point where most people aren't expected to get more than about 60% of the answers, and everyone knows that there will be a hellish, unpredictable final ahead of time, so that there is a rule of fear governing the entire semester that forces hard work. When all there is only a final, and the final is easy, the class becomes a joke you can study for in 2-3 days. And "finals only" can only work when you have people who are strongly grade-motivated already.

Without really knowing, my impression is that Oxbridge works on the "very hard final" manner; that's how the bar exam and the harder law school classes work.

Frankly, though, this seems like the kind of thing that folks who work on studying education probably know, and in which slavish reification of ones own experience is probably a bad idea.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 1:07 PM
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Also, Ttam's comments in this thread remind me of the attitude of the older brothers during my brief time as a fraternity pledge.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 1:09 PM
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43

As I said, at British universities, final exams are a big deal. You go to a big hall, and you sit with dozens or even hundreds of other students, and there are people invigilating, and you are writing on standard papers, marked by people other than your teacher. The minute you make the final exam purely the responsibility of the teacher, of course they aren't going to want to do them properly.

This sounds like an example of the advantages to picking an approach and committing to it (separate from the advantages and disadvantages of the specific approach). Obviously you couldn't make that work if some courses had final exams, others didn't, and others had final exams that didn't use the formal procedures.


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 1:14 PM
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29 I was one of those, except it wasn't ADD but fine motor control which meant I had to have access to a typewriter or a computer in a pre laptop world. I'm not sure if I was ever proctored. I was either stuffed in an office for the time required, or just handed the exam that morning, told to take three hours and have it in the profs mailbox by the end of the day.


Posted by: teraz kurwa my | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 1:40 PM
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I remember my philosophy final had, as a header, a warning that if we answered with anything even related to "What Chair?" we would get a zero and our car keyed by whichever T.A. had the cleanest record.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 1:43 PM
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I remember preferring papers and take-home essay exams for the opportunity to dig a little deeper into my deluded thoughts on the subject matter, but really enjoying the abrupt relief of the roiling tension when an exam proctor said "Begin" and I could start scribbling.


Posted by: Flippanter | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 1:46 PM
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43 would be right if ttaM's description was universally applicable. In fact many UK Universities mix appraisal methods, with some courses having a final and others appraised in other ways. A single long essay, set at the beginning of the course, is a favourite in the humanities. Commonly, for a given degree, mandatory courses have a final, while some (but not all) optionals use other approaches.

Final exams certainly tend to follow the pattern ttaM describes (although usually the students aren't obliged to wear fancy dress except in the mediaeval foundations), but they're by no means always the only kind of appraisal students will face.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 1:46 PM
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Inverted invigilation implies rustication.


Posted by: Flippanter | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 1:51 PM
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re: 47

Yeah, there's a fair bit of variation, and, tbh, the universities I've attended have all been fairly traditional in approach, and I've been studying/teaching subjects that lend themselves to that approach.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 2:16 PM
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re: 38

No idea, I was never asked to. As far as I know, at Glasgow, the papers were marked by a pool taken from the department. There'd be a lot of people sitting the first and second year exams, so no one person could have done it.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 2:24 PM
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ttaM, do undergraduates in the UK ever, or regularly, face a viva voce, of the kind familiar to Americans largely from anecdotes about Wittgenstein?


Posted by: Flippanter | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 2:26 PM
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from what I've seen professors having to deal with, final exams are rarely just an in-class exam and then over. Hordes of students now have all sorts of "disability accomodations" for attention-deficit and things like that, which require that they be given arbitrarily long amounts of time to complete the exams. The onus is on the professors to find time and to sit nearby and "proctor" these never-ending finals for the "disabled" students.

Probably pwned because I haven't read past this, but it isn't true that the onus is on the professor whatsoever. Generally the student is expected to make accomodations with the Students w/ Disabilities office, and they proctor the tests within prearranged parameters.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 2:37 PM
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I've been through Glasgow and Oxford, and in every case the final mark was entirely on the combination of final exams and a thesis. However, undergraduates at Glasgow were examined more often as undergrads prior to the finals. Termly exams, in most cases, which were a big deal -- exam hall, invigilation, etc.

My suspicion is that this only works with students of sufficient maturity, and the schools that practice it are sufficiently selective in their admissions that it works out okay.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 2:47 PM
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Also, those are the situations which most heighten the stereotype threat effect. That's a pretty strong argument against it, with any maturity student.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 3:07 PM
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52: I wasn't just making this up, it was true at my grad school U., and I've heard similar things at other places. I was around when my advisor was having to spend an entire day juggling room assignments in order to proctor out-of-the-ordinary final exams for students who needed to take them in isolation from other people. They had letters from the disability services office stating what their exam conditions should be, and the instructor had to arrange for those conditions. I guess if he was completely unable to they would have arranged something else, but it was expected of him first.

In particular, on the internet I find this statement of the policy:

At [ ] Univ/ersity, the course instr/uctor is primarily respon/sible for pro/viding academic accom/modations. The inst/ructor is the proper perso/n to provide accomm/odations because this af/fords the instruc/tor the oppo/rtunity to maintain acad/emic control over the test/ing envir/onment. The instru/ctor has an obliga/tion to pres/ent test/ing ma/terials in an acces/sible format and fairly e/valuate academic perfo/rmance through the use of te/st accommo/dations."

The document states that students given extra time are usually only allowed 50% extra, not unlimited time, so I must be misremembering a bit. And while I'm sympathetic to people like teraz who really needed the extra accommodation, it seemed like there was a rash of these ADHD diagnoses among grade-obsessed premeds in particular, so it didn't appear entirely legit.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 3:18 PM
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This thread is reminding me how totally ill-served I was by school until I finally learned (sometime after age thirty, or so) that I should just jump through the stupid hoops even though I knew they were stupid and pointless a/f/a my learning. Good times.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 3:20 PM
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Wow. I assumed everyone did it like we did it. (I like how we do it better.) There are a sometimes students who need exams read aloud to them, or need to dictate their answers. I can't imagine having to produce that myself.

The general principle at Heebie U is that the responsibility falls on the student: at the beginning of the semester, they have to get in touch w/ the Students w/ disabilities center, and each teacher is notified about appropriate accommodations and given the opportunity to negotiate. Then the student has to let the testing center know when they have tests coming up or anything else, relevant. The instructor just has to basically play along. We're told repeatedly that the course should not be made easier for this student, just accessible.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 3:25 PM
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Also, bless this school of slackers for not caring enough to constantly be trying to game the system. It sounds exhausting to always have your students be little T. Rexes who are obsessed with testing every inch of the fence for weak spots.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 3:27 PM
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57: This is how it is at my school, too. I just have to email the tests to the Disabilities Office.


Posted by: oudemia | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 3:33 PM
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For final exams our school is like h-g's and oudemia's, but for regular in-semester exams (like, say, the ones we have all the frikkin' time in language courses), it's up to the individual instructors. I had a blind student once, and I not only had to find a testing room for her for double the regular exam time, I also had to get her braille exam and a special internet-disabled computer from an office across campus, and then return it when she was finished with the exam. This after having had to provide the exams and all the classroom materials to the accommodations office two weeks in advance for them to make braille versions. That was a rough semester.


Posted by: Blume | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 3:48 PM
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re: 54

Perhaps, but continuous assessment is also deeply flawed and given all the bullshit that people who work with that sort of system have to put up with, I'm not entirely sure that an exam based system is necessarily worse. In fact, I'd probably still argue fairly strongly for it with subjects that lend themselves to it. With, obviously, other assessment methods used where appropriate.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 4:20 PM
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but continuous assessment is also deeply flawed

It can certainly be done poorly, but what's your argument that all continuous assessment is deeply flawed?


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 4:30 PM
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re: 62

Certainly in my subject area I think it encourages crap conformist essay writing, the trotting out of trite formulaic answers and little in the work of real attempts to address questions. There's definitely a time and place for learning how to do exactly that, but at the same time there should also be place for ... not. I'm not against some mixed system, or the use of project work, or longer form writing that doesn't lend itself to an exam based structure; but I tend to think that there should be also be space for non-assessed work. You learn _how_ to write and think by writing essays, and I think you can learn how to write and think more successfully, in the long term, if you aren't scared that every piece of work you do is going to alter your GPA.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 4:42 PM
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Again, I think that's probably old fashioned. Over the course of a term, or a year, you learn _how_ to do something, and then at the end you are given the chance to demonstrate that you have [or haven't]. If you confusing the learning part with the assessment part, I think that can be unhealthy.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 4:44 PM
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||

The wikipedia article on detecting wine faults notes that associated with Brettanomyces is "Smell of barnyards, fecal and gamey horse aromas".

Man, I hate fecal horses: so inconvenient.

|>


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 4:45 PM
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and I think you can learn how to write and think more successfully, in the long term, if you aren't scared that every piece of work you do is going to alter your GPA.

Am I missing something? I thought you were arguing in favor of high-stakes assignments and tests.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 4:51 PM
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re: 66

After a teaching process, not during it. I think you are missing something. On the model I favour most of your written work is very low stakes, if there's any stake at all.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 4:59 PM
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In 19, you said "Coming from the British system this all seems a bit odd." I'm not clear on what's so odd about a combination of quizzes, tests, and a final exam, then. Substitute low-stakes papers in where appropriate in other disciplines.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 5:19 PM
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I teach in the humanities and I HAVE to quiz extensively and assign short writing assignments just to make sure that everyone does the reading. Discussion really sucks when only 2 people have read the book. If I only had high-stakes mid-terms and a final, 40% of the class would fail because they wouldn't do the reading and you can't cram 10 novels in before finals. My students are serious slackers--if you don't MAKE them do it; they won't, and they are not great at assessing their self-interest


Posted by: Miranda | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 7:22 PM
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until I finally learned (sometime after age thirty, or so) that I should just jump through the stupid hoops even though I knew they were stupid and pointless a/f/a my learning.

Oh, does that help?

I have never been a good student. The last time I was in school was a summer at Middlebury, and I figured my grade would never count toward anything in life, so I was just going to run with my inadequacies. And I basically made it clear* to my teachers that I wanted to learn Spanish, but I just wasn't going to do everything and was totally fine with bad grades. This did not go over especially well.

*Well bear in mind that I had to say all this in Spanish because Middlebury has a reputation for being monomaniacal about pedagogical orthodoxies of questionable worth to uphold, so god knows how clear I made it. As Robert Benchley (I think) said: I was chagrinned to get off the plane and discover that nobody spoke Intermediate French.


Posted by: Mister Smearcase | Link to this comment | 10-31-10 7:40 PM
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re: 68

What's odd is that there's an option, and that the structure and format is a free choice, and that so much responsibility devolves to the class teacher. In my experience things are much more structured -- there are final exams, they happen at certain times, they take a particular format, and so on.

FWIW, my bias against certain types of continuous assessment is almost certainly parochial. I can see how one might want to employ different assessment methods in, say, foreign language instruction, or maths, or other subjects. But in my own subject area, I'd prefer it if students were able to do a lot of their writing without being assessed.

re: 69

I'm not saying people shouldn't be writing. They should be writing a lot, I'm just against the idea that all of those pieces of writing should contribute to their final grade. Also, there are other methods of enforcing the completion of work, no? Just because people are doing work that isn't contributing to their mark, that doesn't mean that work isn't compulsory, or that they can't be disciplined for failing to complete it, no?


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 1:30 AM
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Anyway, I suspect my whole viewpoint on education is predicated partly on students taking some fucking responsibility for themselves.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 1:31 AM
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And 74 is a perennial [and probably boring] theme.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 1:41 AM
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This thread is reminding me how totally ill-served I was by school until I finally learned (sometime after age thirty, or so) that I should just jump through the stupid hoops even though I knew they were stupid and pointless a/f/a my learning. Good times.

Yeah, me too. I've really been pushing my kids on this. "Whether it's stupid or not isn't the point. Now's the time to get good at making yourself do things you don't want to do. Because that's the underlying theme of education and employment. It'll all stop right about the same time as your death. Now finish your homework."


Posted by: gswift | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 2:01 AM
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ttaM, doesn't the B Ph/il involve long essays at the end rather than timed unseen exams? Did you think that was any kind of an improvement? (I have been thinking about this sort of issue since it does look like the gender gap in oxford results is at least partly down to the near-universal use of final exams0


Posted by: Abelard | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 3:35 AM
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73.3.2: like what, a savate shoe to the brainpan? (Seriously, what can one do?)


Posted by: Annelid Gustator | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 4:29 AM
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academic papers should be written as if for someone you don't think is an idiot

But that requires the ability to think of other people as non-idiots. Is that taught at undergrad? Will it be on the final?


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 4:32 AM
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I usually had final exams--except for the class that was basically what we were all taking to pass our general exams. Then they offered those people and the math concentrator taking it an informal, earlier exam. I did have one professor who chose not to offer a mid-term at all, because he figured that he could evaluate how the 6 of us were doing without one.


Posted by: Bostoniangirl | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 4:33 AM
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re: 77

Yeah, it does. I think that's a fairly good approach, too. I'm not entirely committed to the 'sitting in a big hall' timed element, so much as I'm committed to the idea that examination and teaching should be at least partly treated separately, and that anonymous marking is also a good idea. FWIW, just from a personal point of view, I'd have done better in the B. P h1l essays if they had been timed, but that's just to do with my own issues with procrastination.

re: 78

Well, you can make completion of set essays a prerequisite for admission to exams, you can impose disciplinary sanctions for repeated failure to hand work in in time, and so on. It's hardly rocket science.

At Glasgow, if you performed well in the class essays, and the term exams, you were exempted from the final exams for the year; or given the option of writing a take-home paper instead of sitting the final exam. There was an incentive to do well in the essays, but if you did badly in them -- perhaps you're a slow starter, or needed extra help from tutors, or had a higher than normal workload, or whatever -- you could still get a good mark for the year by doing well in the exam. There were also merit certificates and prizes for people who did well throughout the year. There's lots of ways to make the work done throughout the year meaningful for the student, while still allowing them space to actually learn or make mistakes in that work.

I think there's a (slight?) incommensurability of viewpoints here. I'm inclined to see certain aspects of the teaching/learning process as the responsibility of the teacher: they have to do their best to make the work engaging, to explain the topic as well as is possible, to help the student with the intellectual and practical problems of learning the subject, and so on. The rest of it is up to the student, and if they are lazy, poorly motivated, immature, wheedling infants, then ... sucks to be them. I'm extremely sympathetic to the problems of students who find the material difficult, or who perhaps struggle to do the work because they don't believe they are able, and I'm also entirely sympathetic to the life situations that students sometimes find themselves in. Most people, no matter how well-motivated or well-meaning, are going to have times when they struggle because of personal shit in their lives, financial problems, whatever.

But I'm really not sympathetic to the approach that says, "my students are ill-motivated lazy infants, so I'm going to adopt methods appropriate to the teaching of infants." University isn't infant school.

Of course I bet there's more common ground on this than I'm making out. Exaggeration of small differences, etc.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 4:50 AM
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In fact, further to 77/81.1 -- take home papers can be excellent, I think, depending on what you are testing. Also, the use of longer form writing -- short theses, dissertations, project work, etc. -- or oral presentations, are all cool.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 4:52 AM
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Well, you can make completion of set essays a prerequisite for admission to exams,
Would that meaning having failed to complete the essays results in a failing grade in the course?

you can impose disciplinary sanctions for repeated failure to hand work in in time
What sort of sanctions can you set? Keeping them out of dining hall? Not allowing them to enroll in more classes?


Posted by: Annelid Gustator | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 5:20 AM
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By the way, ttaM, I'm not trying to be dense, I just don't know much about the system you come from, and am trying to see what would be the real differences between the approach you are talking about in the above and what I'm familiar with.


Posted by: Annelid Gustator | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 5:24 AM
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re: 83.1

Yes, in theory, although there was scope for slack being cut if there were decent reasons. But consistently failing to hand work in, yeah, you'd be in the shit. But the key point would be that good faith attempts to do the work, even if the work wasn't good, wouldn't necessarily result in a poor final mark for the course because the course essays either represented a small element of the final mark [for some course], or didn't count towards the final mark at all [but were taken into account when awards were given out, exemptions for final exams, etc were considered].

re: disciplinary sanctions -- well you can make them resit courses, resubmit work, prevent them from enrolling for the following year's class, etc. Most universities have something they can do against students who don't do the work, no?


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 5:27 AM
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re: 84

What I'm getting at is that when students are overly concerned with their course work impacting their grade, you get a lot of problems with wheedling, with people getting deeply insulted by low marks, with people trying to 'work' the teacher to gain unfair advantage, and so on, and it becomes hard to treat writing as purely a teaching tool. It's better that teachers can tell a student their work is shit, and award low marks, if that's part of the process of teaching them how to do their work better, rather than if every single piece of work they do is all part of the same grade-inflated crap.

How you actually go about that, can vary. Oxford and Glasgow -- the two universities I'm most familiar with, although I've also spent time at Edinburgh -- had really quite different approaches. Chalk and cheese in many ways. But both had tutorial or class essays as part of the process that didn't count towards the final course mark, or, if they did, only made up a small percentage of that final mark.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 5:33 AM
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Also, I can think of shitty things too, about both of those institution's undergraduate teaching methods, so don't take this as 'our way is better than your way'.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 5:45 AM
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81, anonymous marking. No real problem. Double mark, make exam scripts anonymous, have external moderators, require explanations of discrepancies between "continuous" and "final exam." grades, the system, in theory anyway*, of most UK universities. (The Oxford "not marked by the teacher" is I assume an artefact of the teaching system.) Teachers should be involved in examining, IMO. But they should be able to tell wheedling students (and, for reassurance, the timorous) that they are not sole arbiters.

87 it's better that teachers can tell a student their work is shit, and award low marks, if that's part of the process of teaching them how to do their work better,

agreed, but "continuous" assessment can allow for that so long as it isn't continual. Students' essay assessment -- for example -- could be based on "best x of n" pieces. Some universities have systems that allow it.

*"in theory" is code for "before the RAE, before cuts".


Posted by: ptl | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 6:06 AM
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Students' essay assessment -- for example -- could be based on "best x of n" pieces. Some universities have systems that allow it.

Yeah, that seems fair enough as an option. I can see how that could be made to work reasonably well.

re: 88.1

I can't say for sure re: Oxford, actually, I've done tutorial teaching and taught revision classes for finalists, ran a seminar series [for undergrads, as an adjunct to a lecture series and as an alternative to individual tutorials] but never run a lecture series. The key thing being:

"Double mark, make exam scripts anonymous, have external moderators, require explanations of discrepancies between "continuous" and "final exam." grades, the system, in theory anyway*, of most UK universities. "

I know at Glasgow the person marking the papers might well not be the person who taught the lectures or taught the seminars, but that would have partly been an artifact of the large class sizes at undergrad level. I'd imagine honours papers on the more technical sub-topics with relatively small numbers _would_ have been marked by the teacher, but they were still anonymised and externally moderated, etc.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 6:14 AM
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Glasgow's marking system is then the same as (most) others, except that it has more large courses, and they extend further into the degree; I thought it might be.
"Best x of n" has worked, students like it, it's a decent compromise.
(By the way, I see I need a word other than "continuous" or "continual", but "sporadic" gives the wrong idea...)


Posted by: ptl | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 6:36 AM
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What I'm getting at is that when students are overly concerned with their course work impacting their grade, you get a lot of problems with wheedling, with people getting deeply insulted by low marks, with people trying to 'work' the teacher to gain unfair advantage, and so on, and it becomes hard to treat writing as purely a teaching tool. It's better that teachers can tell a student their work is shit, and award low marks, if that's part of the process of teaching them how to do their work better, rather than if every single piece of work they do is all part of the same grade-inflated crap.

This is a false dichotomy, though. Learning to revise your writing is the heart of learning to write, no? It seems like there are umpteen ways to incorporate revisions into a grading scheme that allow you to speak bluntly to a student and not make every single piece of work part of the same grade-inflated crap.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 6:41 AM
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This textbook keeps having examples that say distinct men and distinct women in ways that amuse me:

In how many ways can we select a committee of two women and three men from a group of five distinct women and six distinct men?

What exactly is the loophole we're dodging? Conjoined twins?


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 6:57 AM
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Wouldn't that mean that a committee of Alice, Betty, and Carl was different from one of Carol, Denise, and Eric? People of the same sex aren't fungible with each other?


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 7:32 AM
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If people of the same sex were fungible, there'd be just one possible committee.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 7:34 AM
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Off to teach! Possibly I'm embarrassingly wrong! It's early in the morning.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 7:35 AM
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Women are fungible on the inside.


Posted by: Verbose Sexist | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 7:38 AM
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94: Sure, which would make the problem trivial. I'm not saying that 'distinct' is necessary -- anyone working from the assumption that it's a real problem would assume it's true -- but I could see putting the word there out of fussy overclarity, which is the sort of thing I associate with math problems.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 7:41 AM
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re: 91

Possibly, but in practice that doesn't tend to be how things work. PTL's suggested system in 88 sounds like a decent alternative, though.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 8:04 AM
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Women are fungible on the inside.

WE ARE HERE TO HELP, LAYDEEZ!


Posted by: OPINIONATED MONISTAT | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 8:15 AM
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I would have guessed it was to specify that you couldn't have a repeated person in a grouping.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 8:22 AM
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So no Alice, Betty, Carl, Carl, Doogie.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 8:23 AM
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101: A better way to specify that would be "select a committee of two distinct women and three distinct men".


Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 8:34 AM
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100: In which case it's hard to argue that it's actually a committee of 5 people.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 8:45 AM
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You all are so ornery. The intended problem is just not confusing (possibly to solve, but not to parse).


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 8:46 AM
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When I was a TA in an electrical engineering course for undergrads, the final was worth about 35% of the grade - problem sets and a couple of exams made up the balance. The students knew ('cause the profs and the TAs told them) that the final would have a few problems that were twists on the course material - i.e, different and harder than, but applications of, what had been covered in class. Of course the TAs had to come up with these gems. One term, a sophomore was just burning through the course material, and one of the profs tasked a TA with designing a problem for the final specifically to trip up the sophomore. Nobody, but nobody in the class except this kid came close on that problem. I doubt if this was sound test design but it did add a touch of interest to our grading sessions.


Posted by: bill | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 8:59 AM
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Learning to revise your writing is the heart of learning to write, no?

Fuck revising.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:01 AM
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If only there'd been a typo in that.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:03 AM
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I would have guessed it was to specify that you couldn't have a repeated person in a grouping.

That is, you couldn't have a group of five women actually made up of four women, one of whom occurs twice?


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:08 AM
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Just you wait, Natarrgm. As Clegmeron turn your system into one like ours, where all students have gone into major debt to pursue the university degree which, whether they learn anything or not, will be necessary for all middle-class jobs, it will be a lot less acceptable to fail anybody.


Posted by: Cryptic ned | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:09 AM
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One (to my mind) well-constructed course that I took had two midterms, graded homework, and a final, and the questions on the final were basically the same as the questions that were either on the midterms (or the midterm study guides) or the homework (all of which were worth far, far less than the final). This meant that if you had studied for the midterms at the time and done your homework, you had some fairly easy review ahead of you, but if you had blown everything off you could still do reasonably well (like a B, maybe?), but it would require essentially doing all the work for the course in one go. It did an excellent job of pointing out the evident fact that it was easier to do the work as you learned it rather than all in a lump at the end without unduly penalizing people who did not, for whatever reason, take that (very good) advice.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:09 AM
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107: I thought about intentionally inserting one, but I went for verisimilitude.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:10 AM
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Just you wait, Natarrgm. As Clegmeron turn your system into one like ours, where all students have gone into the forests to fight the Quarhyfm for the Kingdom of Bwearghh, you too will know the sting of the Gorruptng Floawhurgr.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:11 AM
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109 is basically true. We really are heading for a dark age, aren't we?


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:13 AM
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Learning to revise your writing is the heart of learning to write, no?

This is certainly true for the development of arguments and ideas. But how do you teach a student good diction if s/he doesn't already have an ear for it? "Go home and read widely for about six years, then try this paper again."


Posted by: Blume | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:14 AM
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re: 113

Yes, except in that dark age there won't be anyone teaching humanities in the first place.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:16 AM
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114: Are you allowed to let an "I" stand for six years?


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:17 AM
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112: Notut of either category, though.ne ohing in this sentence gets o


Posted by: Cryptic ned | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:19 AM
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This is certainly true for the development of arguments and ideas. But how do you teach a student good diction if s/he doesn't already have an ear for it?

Oh, I hoped someone hear had an answer. I'm teaching senior seminars this semester and we've got some seriously clunky writing.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:19 AM
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117 is sort of marvelous.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:20 AM
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118: nobody hear without an ear.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:23 AM
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re: 118

I can only speak for myself, but I used to write really quite extensive grammatical corrections on students' papers, and also, sometimes suggest entirely different ways of phrasing sentences, or making an argument [stylistically, I mean]. Sometimes I used to make them go away and rewrite the essay incorporating the suggestions, and fixing all the broken bits. To be fair, this generally went down like a bucket of sick.

I don't know how much success I ever had at genuinely improving people's basic prose writing skills; however I was able to make real improvements in people's abilities to structure arguments, and build a basic essay. Which I suppose would be the minimum you'd expect from someone ostensibly being paid to teach philosophy.

I think Blume's advice, impractical though it is, is probably the most effective.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:24 AM
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One of the few excusable things about the ConDem government is that they're madly enthusiastic about apprenticeships, which I think they see as partly filling the qualification gap after nobody can afford to go to college any more. They're approaching it in a completely half-baked and incompetent way, but at least they've thought that far. Also, some of the stuff that's happening is because Willetts and Cable were handed an insultingly small pot of money and Vince decided to fight to retain a bit of FE (adult continuing education), even if it had to be at the expense of HE (higher education, universities). Which you can agree with or not, but it isn't ipso facto barking. Some of his colleagues basically wanted to wind up FE altogether.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:25 AM
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I can only speak for myself, but I used to write really quite extensive grammatical corrections on students' papers,

The little pedagogy of writing that I've read emphasized the futility of this. Their case was that students will naturally revise clunky sentences as they develop their ideas of their paper. (I know English Composition colleagues who do exercises where you pick a clunky sentence from one paper and every rewrites it several different ways, and then attacks their own papers, but that's super time-consuming if you're not in a composition context.)


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:29 AM
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But how do you teach the students to recognize their own clunky sentences? I know I'm being all curmudgeonly here, but gah. If students knew their sentences were bad, we'd already be halfway there!


Posted by: Blume | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:33 AM
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re: 123

That might well be right, yeah. It probably wasn't that effective, but the Scottish/Calvinist/nasty side of me thinks it's good for the soul to see lots of angry red pen all over essays.*

* I'm sort-of-kidding; I'm not even sure many of the students appreciated how much work actually went into to correcting their work.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:33 AM
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124: In a composition context, this is a skill you work on, I believe. The problem is that none of the rest of us have class time to dedicate to such a thing.

I'm in a project trying to apply composition pedagogy techniques to students learning to write proofs. This is where I'm getting this info from. The problem is that the effective composition teachers really use class time to get students to workshop their writing in clever ways, and if you have content you need to focus on, you've got no time to do so.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:37 AM
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So you're trying to apply composition pedagogy techniques but you don't have time to apply composition pedagogy techniques? How is this effort not then doomed to failure?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:40 AM
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Well, I'm also trying to establish an Introduction to Proof-writing course at Heebie U, which would be an appropriate context. Until then, most of it is peer review and revisions outside of class.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 9:42 AM
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#92: in June 2009, you could have been asked to select the men on the committee from a pool consisting of Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Business & Innovation, Baron Foy in the County of Herefordshire, Baron Hartlepool in the County of Durham, the Lord President of the Council and the President of the Board of Trade.


Posted by: dsquared | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 10:03 AM
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following my husband's lead (and I think this is a good system) I gave students the chance to turn in a draft and have it commented on, or turn the paper in when it was due and get comments then. rather than red ink all over, I used superscript numbers referring to comments at the end of the paper. I would correct people's infelicitous and ungrammatical sentences to the point where I began to think I had put more thought into correcting the things than they had into writing it. I do think you have to tell people where they are going wrong but it's hard to know where to begin sometimes. I think I suffer a lack of empathy or understanding for people who don't already know how to write.


Posted by: alameida | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 10:05 AM
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But how do you teach the students to recognize their own clunky sentences?

You could try assigning A Room of One's Own, Politics and the English Language, and then Tom Friedman or Dan Brown with a big sticker on it labelled, "YOU".


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 10:07 AM
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Maybe grading should be modeled after peer review. Wait a few months, then hand the paper back to the student with a long list of your papers that they forgot to cite. Make sure that any substantive criticism is based only on their opening paragraph, and make it absolutely clear that you didn't read beyond the first page. Complain that they didn't address topics they wrote about in detail. The degree to which you criticize their grammar should be inversely correlated with your own command of the English language; i.e. if criticize their grammar be sure act as if article are not feature of English as spoken.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 10:10 AM
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* I'm sort-of-kidding; I'm not even sure many of the students appreciated how much work actually went into to correcting their work.

One of the things that I feel sorry about from my undergraduate days was that I didn't spend much time looking at the comments on my papers.

By the time I finished the paper I was usually so mentally tied in knots that I didn't want to think about it (are you familiar with the mental state in which one loses confidence in the ability to spell simple, familiar words, "what the heck is a tah-bleh? Oh, wait, that's just 'table'." I would start to feel that way about my sentences).

On the bright side, when I did go back to revise some of my papers well after the fact for grad school applications I was pleasantly surprised to realize that they were not as painful as I feared.


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 10:18 AM
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I make it a practice to never reread or revise: those practices just invite recursion errors.


Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 10:21 AM
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I'm also trying to establish an Introduction to Proof-writing course at Heebie U

Maybe you could start with an Introduction to Proof-Reading, to catch the most obvious typos and punctuational excesses.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 10:41 AM
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Copying out examples of good writing longhand used to be supposed to fix the patterns in the mental ear. For the modern day, perhaps posting YouTube videos of reciting the good example?


Posted by: clew | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 12:06 PM
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Begin crankish rant:

I despise Politics and the English Language. Most overrated essay ever. No, the fact that you've learned to write crisp sentences is not the most important thing ever. No, it's not particularly politically significant. No, imitating the King James Bible is not particularly good writing advice. Moreover, the essay itself is not particularly well written.

I believe that the explanation for the popularity of this essay is simple: it makes college writing instructors feel incredibly important. Which is nice, but doesn't mean that the essay is right.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 12:29 PM
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I'd say Orwell is pretty overrated in general.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 12:43 PM
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Crankish isn't even a real language. It's barely attested -- just in a few epithets -- and Screamo-Crankonian has nothing to do with some alleged original Crankish tongue.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 12:43 PM
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Louis Menand agrees.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 12:48 PM
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I despise Politics and the English Language.

I wonder whether you would like Plastic Words? When I read it my first thought was, "this is a book-length rehash of PatEL" but, as I got used to Poerksen's argument I realized that it was actually quite different and more interesting in some ways.

I haven't read it in years, so my memory is vague, but I do recall ultimately deciding that it was a good book.


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 1:02 PM
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141 -- Never read it, but looks interesting.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 1:40 PM
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Part of PatEL is a critique of the ways organizations and the people who thrive in them use language, usually to shift responsibility. I think that this has lasting value. The praise of clear prose as a conduit for clear thinking is not necessarily right-- Kant and Baudrillard don't exactlt produce sprakling sentences, plenty of great historians do not either, for instance.

But for me, trying to write what I mean clearly helps a lot in actually thinking through the underlying issues. Thinking about organizations and group behavior is really hard, though, and concise statements usually simplify at the expense of accuracy.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 1:56 PM
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I think part of it might be that a relatively bright undergrad with good mechanics tends to think, that's it, I know how to write, but without realizing that there are a lot of different styles to learn, and academic papers should be written as if for someone you don't think is an idiot.

This absolutely was me as a college freshman. And me again as a first year judicial clerk. Learning to adapt to different types of writing is a valuable skill.

When I taught (and I didn't devise the course structure, so I can't take much credit), the semester was built on a lot of low risk writing building up to the assignments that weighed heavily in the final grade. The final paper was worth a ton of points, but most of the semester revolved around smaller building blocks a short piece identifying a controversy. A somewhat longer, objective piece outlining the various positions on the controversy, a persuasive paper arguing one side of the issue. The initial draft got a grade and a ton of mark-up in the margins. The final draft got another grade. Daily journaling was worth a bunch of points with the sole criteria being whether you wrote anything at all.

IME, the single greatest barrier for my students was anxiety that they weren't good writers. (The hubris of believing themselves wordsmiths of the highest calliber was a barrier for a smaller proportion of them.). By the end of the semester, I felt like almost every single one of them had grown tremendously as a writer. I do kind of regret, though, that I couldn't follow up with them to see if they really had picked up transferrable skills, or just learned how to master the one class.


Posted by: Di Kotimy | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 4:12 PM
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78, 83 - Annelid, I did Maths & Philosophy at Oxford (very badly, for the most part). I had a one hour tutorial a week for maths and one for philosophy, arranged by my College. Plus lectures, arranged by the university. For most of my time, my maths tutorials were a tutor, me, and another student. In my philosophy tutorials, it was usually just me. So if I hadn't done the work, I'd be sitting there in some fellow's sittting room looking even more ignorant than usual. That's quite an incentive to produce *something*.


Posted by: asilon | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 5:39 PM
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re: 145

Yes, there is that, although some people can be pretty brazen.

I used to have an English Lit tutor in Glasgow [where the tutorials are groups of about 8 people] who used to bring in boxes of wine, and we'd all smoke and drink red wine. That was also a fairly typical Glasgow lit tutorial, in that one person was a milkman, one was an elderly lady who looked like Miss Marple, one guy was a former East German paratrooper, one was a heart-breakingly attractive posh English girl with a sloaney name, and the rest of us were bog standard Scottish undergrads.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 7:15 PM
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The studio component of BFAs at Concrete U (80% of the year's work, basically) are marked in the first year 5% for 6 two week workshops, and then 20%/30% for two term long workshops, with the best mark counting most.

The other three years it depends on the department (I think), but I know painting/sculpture/printmaking base their entire mark on the end of year submission, and nothing else matters, really*.

* Ostensibly. In practice, there's 20 undergrads in a department, there's at most 10 people competent to mark them in the university, who all know each other and the students on first name terms, and to get external moderators the university's already ringing people up on different tectonics plates, so the actual marking's pretty odd.


Posted by: Keir | Link to this comment | 11- 1-10 7:56 PM
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That was also a fairly typical Glasgow lit tutorial, in that one person was a milkman (Glasgow CID), one was an elderly lady who looked like Miss Marple (MI6), one guy was a former East German paratrooper (CIA), one was a heart-breakingly attractive posh English girl with a sloaney name (Mossad), and the rest of us were bog standard Scottish undergrads.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 11- 2-10 2:49 AM
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re: 148

Heheh. That's some pretty hefty firepower to monitor the activities of three or four lazy 20-something Scots and one mildly wine-sozzled tutor.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 2-10 5:31 AM
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That level of intrusiveness is nothing compared to the Tories' future plans.


Posted by: Cryptic ned | Link to this comment | 11- 2-10 6:16 AM
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149. I imagined the tutor was probably FSB.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 11- 2-10 6:20 AM
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145: yeah, but that's 'cause you have the capacity for shame. This is not a native faculty in USAmerica. Especially among "strivers." And ttaM, the things you suggest up-thread actually seem like actually very high stakes (except the resit) for US students, because the stupidly high cost of higher ed here.


Posted by: Annelid Gustator | Link to this comment | 11- 2-10 6:30 AM
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re: 152

Yeah. I'm in favour of making a lot of the written work fairly low stakes to facilitate learning, but I'm quite happy with consigning the lazy and/or crap to the flames at the end of the process [given a reasonable number of opportunities to make things right, resit, repeat courses, etc].*

* and I know whereof I speak. I ended up dropping out from my first attempt at university study; I still think it right that they failed me.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 2-10 6:37 AM
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I'd be sitting there in some fellow's sittting room looking even more ignorant than usual. That's quite an incentive to produce *something*.

And that's why you should drink plenty of coffee before you go to give a urine sample.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11- 2-10 6:39 AM
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153.2 From the same perspective, I entirely agree. Nobody is owed a degree just because they've paid to enroll at a university. Universities should make every effort to assist students who are having real difficulty through no fault of their own, and they should be much better equipped to deal with non-conventional students - returning adults, not middle class, not academically coached, etc.

But they should never in the final analysis compromise their standards to accommodate the idle, the entitled or those who refuse to grow up.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 11- 2-10 6:51 AM
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re: 155

Exactly. When I was teaching I was always very sympathetic to genuine problems of that type* but at the end of the day, you either do the work sufficiently well, or you don't.

* God knows I've suffered enough my self from having to work mad hours to finance my studies, while simultaneously trying to match the performance of people who have nothing but free time and cash.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 11- 2-10 6:57 AM
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