The Trending Prof

Anita Woods Ph.D., University Educator

The Perfect Exam- Unattainable?

I pride myself in the details. Making sure every slide is perfect, every lecture is content balanced with times built in for student engagement and a level of performance to keep attention.  I am nit-picky when it comes to writing and editing.  Pouring over manuscripts, editing and rewriting until everything sounds right. But last night, I left an exam in tears……  No, I didn’t take the exam, I wrote the questions.

Within two minutes of the exam beginning, one of my biggest fears came to light….I had sent the course manager the wrong edit of my exam questions….one that had a few errors that I had managed to catch in my final read through….the edit that I didn’t send to print.  Sure enough, glaring on the page was my first exam question error.  The kind that there is no right answer, because the calculation was straightforward and an answer to match was not in the list of distractors.  I sucked up my pride and let the course manager know right away. After ten announcements (to the 10 different exam rooms where students were writing), my error was placed front and centre of the entire 500+ member class.  Admitting error is hard.  It’s hard on the ego but it also places the professor in a realm where some students may doubt every single question and every single word.  I knew the questions would start while students entered my section of the exam.  Much to my horror, two more errors appeared.  At that point, the exam had already gone on for too long and no other corrections were possible (some students had already finished and handed in their papers).  I had to put on a brave face and to those that were savvy enough to pick it up, respond in a neutral manner stating that if there was an error (which I said was highly likely in those two other questions), that we would carefully review the exam afterwards and deal with the questions appropriately. Which means the course manager will either decide to throw the question out or give everyone the point.

As I drove home last night, I actually cried. Yes, I am extra sensitive since I am pregnant, hormonal and have taken on an extra teaching load to help our department in a time of need.  But despite that, I think I still would have been upset at myself for missing three errors on an exam that I wrote. As I thought about it more today, I think the thing that truly bothers me about an exam not being perfect is that this is the last impression I leave on students. Regardless of the attention and time I spent on creating an entirely new lecture set (choosing to miss my summer vacation in the process because duty called….which now makes me extra grumpy), the long hours spent making each lecture, the hours reading extra content to be able to present the most up to date lectures, the hours spent quickly answering student questions via email and during office hours, errors on an exam is the last impression.  I am not trying to be friends with my students, but I wish for them to remember me as an avid scholar who provided them with the a rigorous education that will hopefully serve them well in their future careers.  Not the prof who doesn’t edit exams properly.  Unfortunately, most will view me as the latter and that stinks.

I have not yet achieved the perfect exam.  Unattainable?


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