Second And Third Mid-Term Exams

A statement needs to be said about this, and I’ll take it upon myself to try to deliver it. I’ll try my utmost to present both sides of the argument, but it will be as evident as saying it outright which side I’m on. I don’t stand mutual and nor do you, and there are no lines or middle grounds in between we can stand idly on. A short introduction is due first. We are the class to be graduated in 2014. This is our third year, in CCP (Computer and Communication Program), in the faculty of engineering, Alexandria university. Our finals start in exactly two weeks, and most of us have 4 or more mid-term exams next week, in heavy subjects that most of us chose willingly. I mention choosing subjects to emphasis the interest we have in the courses and our willingness to put an effort in them, although you are free to omit this in your judgement of what follows. For those who don’t know, or don’t recall, the last semester in the third year is considered the most difficult for a computer major student. Not for its diverse courses and bigger requirements, but for the fact that it’s recruiting time for intern-ships, research opportunities and other various endeavours students try to get expertise and money with (e.g GSoC,GCJ). All of those require a great deal of preparation, focus, and, most assuredly, time. This is all the information you need to consider a factor in what I’m proposing. No personal or individualistic situations, and nothing related only to the author of this post or any of his fellow students.

This is not an argument nor a debate; it’s an objection to something I think is more harmful than beneficial; something I’m assured time and time again that I’m not alone in considering it to be so, but perhaps I can put into words what others know in their hearts.

In the case for exams, stands the most obvious reason; they are an age old proven, balanced and just method of measuring what students accumulated throughout the course. They allow an instructor to have a direct record of what points he may have some shortcomings in, and which he can safely build on to more difficult ones; they allow him to gauge the level of his students, and in courses where the main goal is to teach a theory or a mathematical method of calculation, the exam actually becomes the practical part, with little other alternatives. An exam also helps summarize the course, and bring it all back together in courses where different approaches to solving a problem are taught. An exam, to a student, is a test of his understanding apart from his ability to apply what he understands; two key elements that are closely dependant on each other but occasionally need to be tested separately.

That is the case for exams, which I embrace heartily. A mid-term is a good milestone for all the above reasons, if you indeed want to test the students’ understanding of the theoretical part of the course. That said, two mid-terms are disastrous. Counting the final, that’s three exams in three months. and don’t assume that they are evenly spaced, since the second mid-term is rarely ever planned before the first, which makes the first almost always after a month and a half or more and the second, you guessed it, two weeks before the final. That is four lectures maximum of new material, for the second and final tests. In a fully theoretical course, and I’ll let you decide how often we encounter one in a computer science department, that is hardly enough information to conduct a test on, so the students, and professors, find themselves with an ‘everything up to the last lecture’ type of exams. This is terrible. The purpose of an exam is to get data, for both the student and the professor. You are not only getting data you already had, you are interfering with the data you should gather on the period in between the tests. A test isn’t a test any more. It becomes the curse of every unsystematic, yet productive, intuition based effort: a quota system.

Exams become just another method used, not to aid the learning process, but to distribute fractions of the grade. They do it at the start of the course, and later on, if circumstances call for a change, make polls on how much a test should have of grade points, not based on what’s on the test, but various other factors, the most intellectually depraved of which is how well the majority of students did on the previous one. Part of that quota system is not in the hands of a professor, but the department’s management, which, at times, dictates what a subject’s final exam quota should be. Yet, we have seen professors simply ask for the a test to be below the minimum and be granted it.

So far, I haven’t touched on the obvious other defect at play in most of the courses we take. They are not, by any means, entirely theoretical. Their understanding is inseparable from their application. Most of the time the theory is computation, and its test is application. To test them as you would test a journalism course, is like testing an athlete by making him describe his sport instead of perform it.That is absurd. Do not, as our esteemed professors do, assume that this is easily remedied by ensuring the course work tests the practical side ‘as well’. This ‘as well’ ruins not only this course’s coherence, but also affects badly all the other courses the student has undertaken. By doing both, keeping the unnecessary, unproductive tests, and adding the practical practices, and due to the quota systems, the students find themselves doing big projects for minimal grade points. Meaning, the balance between the time spent on an assignment and the grade points earned breaks. And since the amount of other theoretical deliverables (sheets and reports) stays the same, this affects the other courses allocable time, which, if they do the same, creates this cycle of unfinished, or barely completed projects. The next step, after some often valid remarks from students on their inability to meet deadlines are voiced, is the shrinking down of the assignments, yet again.

This sanctity of multiple mid-terms is laughable. Some professors claim it boldly as their right to have two mid-terms, and some consider themselves more proficient, successful or achieving if they command three, with little regard to the reality of how time consuming this is in a course that doesn’t need it. Others do so unaware of the problems they cause, habitually or out of neglect. On the other hand, some extremely strict professors, with little or no room for discussion, respect the subject they are undertaking to teach, and recognize the importance of applying it first hand, that they put more grade points on applying the knowledge than memorizing it.

In the end, someone who objects to something should define clear and concise steps to rectify what he sees as an error. Though, one could get into a lengthy discussion on whether a specific course is practical or theoretical, we can easily agree on many courses as indeed practical in a heartbeat; on those I define these steps:

A strict, dated outline of the course’s milestones should be published before the registration begins. You, as a professor, aren’t entitled to set exam dates arbitrarily mid-course, nor are we to object to anything you declared before registering in the course. You, a professor, aren’t required to be in communication with other professors we study under, nor should you be asked to consider how many other projects we have at the same time, if you did that one part; a dated outline of the course’s milestones.

Adjusting an assignment’s grade in keeping with students’ request after it has been issued, is an insult to professor and student alike. The same goes for exams. How misjudging and error-prone does a professor have to be to reduce an exam’s grade points to one third or one fifth of its original announced grade?

Finally, a word of advice to students and professors. To the first, do not choose a subject that essentially teaches you how something is done, then complain when you are asked to do it. To the latter, do not heed those who will persist in asking for a break from the application and demand a theoretical version of the practical in order to enhance their grades; if a subject is purely practical, then test it and us accordingly.

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