Secrets of your final exams


It’s the time of year when students overdose on Ritalin in a mad dash to cram in everything they didn’t bother to learn in the prior four months. I remember this time well (minus the Ritalin, just say no kids). Now, as a professor, I see it from a different perspective. So here’s some helpful advice that might put your final exams into a better perspective.

Your professors don’t want to grade anymore than you want to take tests
Many students have a strange belief that professors spend all of their free time reveling in the grading process. On the contrary, we hate it. Sure, there’s that occasional fool, but there’s also that occasional student that asks for more homework. They’re the anomalies.

The norm is that most professors hate grading, and they especially hate grading under the gun at the end of the semester. Just like you we’re prepping for the holidays or summer break, or maybe reading classes for the next semester. We don’t have the time for a lot of grading, especially not in four or five classes. We might assign papers due, but it’s not because we’re looking forward to reading them. It has more to do with…

Oh crap, we only have four grades so far
Yes, despite making syllabi out before each semester, we do sometimes forget to take enough grades. This is especially true if you’re the type that does very vague syllabi with percentage, rather than point breakdowns. A lot of times that end of the semester paper is simply to keep your grade from being entirely determined by two tests, since we’re fairly certain you’ll fail the midterm.

We’re fairly certain you’ll fail the midterm
Ever felt like the midterm was actually the hardest test in a class? That’s because it generally is for many. There’s a couple of reasons for this. For one, you don’t know what we really expect you to know for that first test, or how detailed we might get. Grades are generally lower simply because students go in rather blind.

Second, we often manipulate the final to balance out grades. Most professors I talk to feel there is something wrong if the majority of class is either failing or acing a course. Sometimes they’ll make the final killer to lower the class average, but generally it’s much easier to raise grades than bring them down. Because of point one, we often make the final easier to help balance out grades. Failing 18 or 25 students does us no good.

Because student evaluations matter to us, sort of
No, we don’t care nearly as much as we probably should. No, we don’t care nearly as much as our bosses wish we did. Still, we do care…sort of. We care that every student doesn’t give us ones or zeros (depending on the scale). If we have a class average of one out of five, that looks bad for us. We want to avoid that.

On the other hand, one student giving us all ones reflects more on the student than us. It’s a sign that student was probably bitter over something, such as their grade. That student’s evaluation is likely to be ignored by both us, and our bosses. Want to make an actual impact? Grade us down in the one area you think we really failed as teachers. That gets our attention.

Speaking to us the last week of the semester shows how little you care
Every semester just about I have a student who is failing and comes to me the last week of classes asking how they can bring up their grade. You can’t. The semester is over at this point. Why didn’t you come to me when you were getting that string of Fs and Ds earlier in the semester? Right, because you didn’t care. If this is obvious to you, then it is also likely obvious to all of us, as well.

And it won’t help to have your parents call
Seriously, don’t have mom or dad call. Beyond the fact that talking to them might be a violation of the federal FERPA law, there’s also the fact that it makes you look childish. This is probably a good explanation for why you struggled in class in the first place.

If you didn’t, now would be a good time to ask for a letter of recommendation
Looking for a general letter of recommendation? The end of the semester is probably your best bet. I still remember you vividly from class. I can recall your personality and strengths clearly. As time passes, I hate to break it to you, but you start to fade from my memory. In as little as a year I might have forgotten you entirely except for your name sounding familiar. This is obviously a terrible time to ask for a letter. Strike while the grading pen is hot.

And the last one? Finals are a pain to write
Give all the tips above, one thing to understand is that finals are for most of us our least favorite assignment of the semester. That’s because they’re often the hardest to write and grade. Beyond the issue of trying to balance out the class, we also have to deal with the facts vs. theory vs. practical triangle of terror.

Most classes (especially general education courses) begin heavy in factual detail. Names, places, dates, definitions, etc. figure heavily into the pre-midterm curriculum. Past that, however, most classes move more heavily into theory and practical application. For example, in a composition class the early weeks are likely spent reviewing styles and grammar. That’s easy to write a test over.

Later weeks of the semester, however, are likely spent focused on practical application of that knowledge. Since little new material is being added to the course, it becomes difficult to write a test that will measure those abilities. This is why you often end up with that end of term paper. It’s also why many finals tend to be comprehensive. We need that extra material to make a well-rounded exam.

I don’t know much about ganders
Look, not every rule or tip above applies evenly across every course. Obviously some classes are more technical or practical than others. Some professors have completely different teaching and grading styles. Still, in interacting with other professors I’ve found these to hold relatively true for most. So while they might not all apply to all ganders, they’ll apply to at least most geese.


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