Bathroom breaks and other news of the day

I’ve come to the realization that a little chronic pain can be good for the soul. That is, if the chronic is not too chronic. Readers of this blog may remember my whining and complaining about neck pain—a recovery and more pain.

I am now delighted to report the absence of pain—so palpable that I can acutely feel it. This is mostly due to my highly dedicated and knowledgeable physical therapist, along with heat, electrical stimulation, proper ergonomics, better posture and a series of exercises designed to strengthen unused muscles while at the same time preventing activation of overused muscles. Thank you physical therapy!

I’m celebrating, but I’m going to be doing my best to avoid going through this process again.

One of the first things I’ve learned is that meetings can be bad for the body. At all cost, I find it crucial to get up and stretch as many times as necessary, no matter how shocked the other people in the room appear to be by my eccentric behavior. I’ve been standing and bending and stretching at national meetings for grant review, as well as at local meetings in my own institute.

At a recent curriculum meeting, I found myself sitting right back down in my chair when the topic of bathroom breaks during exams came up for discussion. It turns out that at a certain institute, in certain courses, graduate students have been requesting bathroom breaks at an alarming rate during the course of three-hour exams. Well, when you gotta go, you gotta go.

However, intelligence reports have been leaked (no not through Wikileaks) maintaining the students have been pulling notes or cell phones out of their pockets in the restroom/bathroom/w.c.—which of course is cheating.

Years ago, the response to cheats often used to be that those who cheat are really cheating themselves, because they haven’t learned properly. But this doesn’t do the trick—especially since the students are graded on a curve, and there is fierce competition for fellowships and other rewards.

This makes it incumbent upon course coordinators to ensure that justice is served.

Easier said than done.

In fact, how does one accomplish this? Multiple ideas were put forth:

1) Restrict students to one restroom break during the course of the exam.

Does this help? Once can be enough for cheating, yet might not be enough for a student with a weak bladder or stomach upset.

2) Chaperone students into the restroom.

This would require, in addition to the instructor proctoring the exam, a female and male teaching assistant to sit there for three hours solely for the purpose of escorting students to the restroom. How productive! And then what? Do they venture into the stalls with the students? Or frisk them before going in? Or should we purchase a body-scan machine that “sees through the clothing of an individual”—like the TSA (Transportation Security Authority) at US airports?

So what can course coordinators do?

Another idea was to split the exam into several sections. A student leaving for the restroom would have to finish and turn in his or her test section before going to the restroom. Each test section could be designed to take about 45 min. or an hour, with a five-minute restroom break before the next section starts.

Does this solve the problem? I don’t know. For one, what happens if the student genuinely or disingenuously asks for the restroom after 15 min.? Does he or she need to forfeit that entire test section? Would that be fair? An additional issue is that some students are stronger in some sections and others are better at different sections. Traditionally, the three-hour exam has allowed students were good at one section to whiz through it quickly and spend a lot of time on the sections that they find difficult. With this new proposal, students would lose this advantage.

I don’t have an answer, but would be curious to hear how these issues are dealt with “over the pond” or at any other institutions. Also, if anyone has any creative ideas to deal with these messy issues, I’d love to hear from you.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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14 Responses to Bathroom breaks and other news of the day

  1. cromercrox says:

    Soul? Ah, soul. They’re all cheating. I don’t think I can ever, ever remember an exam, back in the day, whether I was taking it or supervising it, in which anyone ever went to the thunder box, ever. But we didn’t have mobile phones back then. I think you should forbid all requests for adjournments to the Khazi.

    Aside: how is it that people in the Greatest Nation On EarthTM resort to such lily-livered euphemisms as ‘restroom’ and ‘bathroom’ for the place in which one goes to commit Wilful Acts of Egestion and Elimination?

    Another Aside: Happy 4th July. My own view is that the Thirteen Colonies are too much of a disorganized rabble to hack it. It’ll never work.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      You know, I was thinking exactly about the criticism I would take for using these euphemism when writing the post. In my defense, I can claim that I’m only 1/3 American.

      But the best defense is a good offense (plagiarized from…?): I seem to recall in reading your epic fiction “By the Sea,” that someone is “praying to the big white telephone.”

      Aside: On my first visit to London 25 y ago, I kept noticing that throughout the city there were signs on buildings that said “Toilet.” How civilized, I thought, public toilets. It took me a few minutes to realize that my brain was drawing in the “i,” and that all the signs really said: “To let.”

  2. The most obvious one at our place is that all electronic gizmos (inc cell phones) are absolutely forbidden in the exam hall. The only exception is a very simple mathematical calculator. Phones, Crackberries, pagers etc all have to be left in students bags, or handed in, and being found WITH one (in the exam hall or while on a ‘rest-break’) is regarded as cheating unless shown to be otherwise.

    The other thing is something of a zero tolerance policy towards such things. If a cell phone goes off about your person, or is found, while you are doing an exam, you will get 0% for that exam even if you weren’t trying to cheat. No exceptions. And if you were trying to cheat the penalty can be more than that, up to and including being slung out of the University.

    “Policing’ bathroom breaks is a tricky one. When I started at the Univ the faculty used to ‘invigilate’ all the exams, and we would escort people as far as the bathroom door but not follow them in. Of course, there weren’t that many people taking breaks in them thar days.

    Nowadays we have ‘professional invigilators’, both male and female, usually retired faculty paid by the hour (mandatory salaried retirement at 65 currently at at our place), who do the job. Rumour has it that they are total sticklers for the rules, including going into multi-stall bathrooms with students.

    Of course, it’s not just a problem in University exams. See, for instance, this thread about chess and a person caught cheating in a recent German championship master tournament, which links to other recent cases.

    • cromercrox says:

      I’ll bet that anyone who accompanies a student to the loo has to have a full CRB check…

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I suppose it might only be necessary for a single student to endure a prostate exam on en route to the …ahem…’john,’ in order to spread the rumor that the instructors mean business. Of course I passed up on the opportunity to learn medicine precisely to avoid such fun situations…

  3. KristiV says:

    Glad your neck pain is gone, Steve, and I agree that meetings are bad for the body. Though my ailments of late arise from standing/walking slowly for long periods on a hard surface (gross anatomy lab, lecturing, mouse room chores). Swimming is my current self-prescribed remedy, and I think I need to go back to practicing Iyengar yoga.

    We attempt to deal with the cheating/bathroom (sorry, cromercrox … toilet) break issue in the manner that Austin mentions: cell phones and other devices must remain in backpacks or bags at the sides of the lecture hall. There is no punishment if a cell phone goes off during the exam, however, as even looking at a student sternly or with disapproval or with any expression that could possibly be construed as not cheerily supportive, is an offense punishable by whiny comments on course evaluations. One female and one male can leave the lecture hall at a time to go to the toilet, so there develops a bathroom queue, in the form of a corral of chairs. There are 220+ students taking the exam, and most of them have bottles of water, energy drinks, Starbucks coffees, frulattis, granola bars, little bags of pretzels or nuts, and candy with them, so egestion and elimination are inevitable.

    Why, you may ask, do adults require such sustenance during an exam that lasts, at maximum, three hours? I did ask a student once – “What’s up with all the little drinks and snacks during exams?” She told me that when they take the prep courses for professional school admissions tests, they’re advised on which drinks/snacks to bring to exams, and when to consume them. I’m not kidding. This country can be brought to its knees, by taking away our juice boxes and chocolate-covered pretzels. o_O

    • Yes, the continual grazing and sipping is a total mystery to me, too. Whatever happened to a good breakfast, or lunch, beforehand?! Or taking a drink an hour before the exam?

      And don’t get me started on all the ‘You must carry a waterbottle and stay hydrated at all times” Hydrationista horsesh*t.

      It all smacks to me of the kind of Cargo Cult thinking that causes ageing cynics like me to despair, but is prevalent in the mass media and sports. If you imitate what someone has told you the pros do, you will then perform like a pro. Yeah, right.

      Talking of exam duration: like Henry, I would guess, I did my A-levels (school leaving exams) aged 18, and my University finals aged 21, doing almost all three-hour exam papers. Whilst nowadays we don’t have ANY exam paper in my Faculty, even at finals, that runs longer than two hours.

      Of course, I suppose that could be to reduce the need for the bathroom dash…

      • cromercrox says:

        Young people these days, don’t know they’re born etc etc

      • KristiV says:

        We have to invigilate all our exams, whether in the lecture hall or in the gross anatomy labs for practicals. If I decide to drink anything during that period, it will be water from the fountain, or herbal tea from a thermos. Same for days when I’m giving more than one lecture (I’ll bring a mug or cup for the water). To be honest, some of my middle-aged and older colleagues are no better than the students, in their need to graze and sip. They’ll to-and-fro for styrofoam cups of coffee and fistfuls of seminar cookies.

        I agree with you about the hydrationista nonsense, Austin – it seems like almost everyone in this country believes they’ll shrivel up and die, if they don’t have a bottled water to suck on constantly. And to hear some people chide me for drinking from water fountains and the tap, you’d think I was in imminent danger of contracting arsenic poisoning, dysentery, or cholera. But(t) judging from the usual condition of the toilets at work, apparently I’m in better control of my bowels, than are the majority bottled water sippers. Yuk. [/rant]

        • @Kristi

          ‘And to hear some people chide me for drinking from water fountains and the tap, you’d think I was in imminent danger of contracting arsenic poisoning, dysentery, or cholera.’

          The other brain-ache-r there is that some people believe – a belief assiduously fostered by sundry alt.reality, sorry, Alt Health people, and which I assume delights the bottled water industry – that tap water / fountain water gives you cancer. Seriously. It’s the chlorine.

          The chlorine that is there as part of keeping the water, y’know, microbiologically clean and drinkable.

          We’re back with General Jack D Ripper again…

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Coming to this country from a very hot desert-like country–where water is extremely precious–I have to say that when we arrived 13 years ago, we were amazed by the the huge “buckets” that people bring everywhere to sip from. In the car, elevator, office, store, etc. Much more typical of a desert climate climate, one would think.

      Also amazing to us is to see students (and faculty) walk into the elevator on the way to work at 8 a.m. drinking soda/pop/soft drinks–well, let’s stop the euphemisms–sugary carbonated flavored water.

  4. Anthony says:

    Once idea has been to move away from standardized tests and move toward project based classes. By having projects for the students, it avoids the risk of cheating and the pressure of timed tests and replaces it by rewarding the students who dedicate the time and energy to learn about their subjects.

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