How Not to Spend a Bank Holiday

While most of the country is thriving on a diet of bunting, boats on the Thames, nostalgia and street parties, many of us in Cambridge are struggling with more mundane matters. Exams. The University of Cambridge cannot afford, in its 8 week terms, to indulge in random days off. Students and examiners alike have to comply with a regulated timetable of examinations that has probably been largely unchanged over many years. Certainly I suspect I had exams myself on a Bank Holiday, and most definitely I had exams on Saturdays because I remember being somewhat fed up at this imposition as an undergraduate all those years ago.

This year I have a tight timetable to mark around 200 scripts of second year physics exams, but none of the remarks that follow should be taken to relate specifically to these particular papers. I have no desire to strike fear into those students who suspect their offerings are currently residing on my desk, so what I write here will simply be general thoughts. However, it is also written somewhat testily because I find myself resenting not being able to relax while the rest of the country takes time off to enjoy what appears to be typical Bank Holiday weather (I’ve had my head down on this batch, my second, since Friday). So, I am affording myself the luxury of writing this as a brief distraction to put off wading through another massive pile of answers. This weekend it has been particularly hard to focus due to noises off – ranging from the thumping of the amplified bass coming from the annual Strawberry Fair on Midsummer Common a few streets away all Saturday, to the whine of our neighbours drilling (or possibly sanding machine), intermittently on and off just the other side of the party wall from where I’m trying to concentrate. Possibly someone else not entirely enjoying their Bank Holiday ‘relaxation’.

Cambridge takes its examinations seriously, or at least my department does, sometimes to the despair of colleagues coming to the department who have been familiar with other perhaps less-structured systems. Exactly how seriously does depend on the particular group (especially the senior examiner who carries ultimate responsibility) setting the paper. I was once involved with a group who got more and more worked up about every comma, every semi colon, the proper use of italics and bold fonts, plus every conceivable way a question could be misinterpreted, until – as the deadline for getting the papers to be printed approached – we seemed to be meeting every other day. By that point my patience was wearing thin as I was convinced the rewording piled upon rewording,  the tweaking this way and that, merely took us back to where we’d started: we’d defined the actual basic physics of the questions many moons before. Such obsession is rare, but constant vigilance does pay off at (mainly) avoiding ambiguities. One year I got most of the way through marking a particular question, giving zero marks for what I thought was the ‘wrong’ answer. The further I worked my way down the pile of scripts, the more I realised that, although the answer was not what was intended, it was perfectly consistent with the way the question had been posed. So, back I went to the beginning with a new mark scheme, giving credit for both the expected and unanticipated responses. Rather soul destroying, and (as too often) leaving an untidy set of marks on the scripts, with many scratchings-out as I changed what I deemed was ‘correct’.

Students may be only too familiar with that moment of fear as they turn the exam paper over to see what horrors the examiners have dreamed up that year. It may surprise them to know examiners feel fear too, in case some howler has nevertheless slipped through the net. In my University we are required to turn up for the first 20 minutes of each exam, ‘appropriately’ attired in our gowns (why?), in case of problems. Thereafter we are allowed to retreat to our offices, leaving our mobile numbers behind, so that the invigilators (also be-gowned) can summon us if necessary. Rarely has that happened to me and never with anything terrible, but horror stories do abound. The year the answers were stapled onto the back of each exam paper was a classic, or the year part of a second paper got mixed in with the first. Mercifully never on my watch, because both those seem fairly irremediable failings although, strange to say, I have no recollection how either mishap was resolved – probably because people tried not to talk about the problems too loudly.

Exams have changed over the years. I was of a generation that still suffered a practical exam at the end of the first year – continuous assessment hadn’t yet found its place in the curriculum. And suffered was the operative word too. Despite having dutifully turned up to the practical classes week on week, I had very little idea of what I was doing or what I was supposed to do in that exam, with what was clearly a very open-ended experiment involving, as far as I can recall, little more than a light bulb. I have no idea why, after a year of hard work, so little expertise had sunk in or whether the fault was mine or the way we were taught.  In retrospect I am surprised it didn’t put me completely off physics forever. But then, my chemistry practical exam that year went little better, since I distinctly remember putting a glass rod through the bottom of the test-tube containing whatever precious compound I had spent several hours preparing. I suppose it’s a case of if at first you don’t succeed….

The other bizarre form of exam I remember was in my Finals, when – with a rare twist of modernity – we were allowed to do something other than simply answer questions. It felt incredibly exciting at the time (sad people that we were). We were allowed to write what these days we’d call a literature survey, actually getting a chance to read original papers. But (presumably because some Ordinance hadn’t yet been changed) we had to do it under exam conditions. So, for 3 hours, we sat and regurgitated our memories of some topic of our choosing – in my case I’d opted for something on Pseudopotentials, being fascinated by solid state physics back then. I am sure I scribbled away as fast as I could, and my writing would have been dreadful by the end of 3 hours. As an examiner I shudder when I think how hard it would have been to mark those extended essays, both because there would be no way one could devise a straightforward marking scheme, but also because the legibility must have been dubious and the reading of the essay would have been less than pleasurable I’m sure. No doubt this is what my arts colleagues endure all the time, but I am used to having more structured questions to deal with, where a mark scheme can be fairly easily devised, giving confidence in the relative reliability of the marks allocated.

So, now I must return to the grindstone. Back to that pile of papers representing a year’s worth of blood, sweat and tears, back to trying to keep a clear brain while reading multiple scripts on the same subject, back to ensuring I am consistent and fair despite a raging headache and a great desire to give up and do something more pleasurable and be anywhere else but in my untidy attic ‘office’ on this Bank Holiday.


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3 Responses to How Not to Spend a Bank Holiday

  1. ‘Exam answers stapled to the back of the question paper’ gets a definite laugh of recognition from me, though it was not our Department but one of the others within the Faculty. As I recall, the Faculty junior exam administrator went off citing stress and then resigned, although whether one should take that to indicate responsibility for the foul-up (as opposed to ‘an obvious person to be in the cross-hairs to carry the can’) I never found out.

    Having done many years as an Exams Officer (the person who collected and collated the exams) I also recognise the dreaded invigilation committee scenario. I actually used not to send most papers back to the setters, but rather would amend them myself syntax- and spelling-wise after a single committee meeting to chew over the underlying sense/intent. Other exams officers in the Faculty used to send every single query back to the original question-setters, mostly to cover themselves, but I reckon my method was quicker.

    My best story of actually invigilating exams (and also containing a subtly different example of how the choice of words can trip up the paper setters) can be found here.

  2. In a multiple choice physiology exam circa 2007, I came across a series of questions in the middle in which the letter for the correct answer was reproduced in a different font. I still made sure they all corresponded to the right answers though, so I suppose I lost out to those who would otherwise have been guessing!

    Mind you, this was the second year of four, and in our enlightened system nothing except for the practical project and literature review counted towards the final grade until 5 examinations in our last fortnight.

  3. This was an interesting read – having been on the recieving end of a Cambridge exam, I was completely unaware how the things were actually written.

    As an early career member of staff I had to set my first exam this year and was absolutely terrified. In the end I got fantastic feedback from the external examiners and nothing went wrong on the day. One of my main fears was that I could continue to have consistency in the sorts of questions I ask, so my students can use the past papers in future to help their revision. In my finals I knew, in one paper, a question to analyse the supply-side economics of change in the Indian cotton industry in the late eighteenth century would come up. Of course the year I did was the first time ever that the examiners switched it to a demand-side focus. Thankfully I still did very well.

    In a more “enlightened” university I was frustrated that I had to set an exam for this course – at the level of a postgraduate taught course I don’t think examination fully tests the range of learning outcomes that I know my students are expected to have – just the sort of strategic learning I did. Further, I can think of nothing more dull than a load of exams about urban planning. To this end I had something like what you had in your third year – a large, very open seen question (the students had two weeks to research for it). I got some really good answers back from my students and learnt a lot myself reading their scripts. So, for me, this was a resounding success. And, admittedly, the structured, unseen questions were much easier to mark (read, tick, count up ticks) but with well-defined learning outcomes the longer essays were pretty easy to mark.

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