The test

Dr J. returned to his office following a successful presentation at the spring conference.   His was proud of his presentation of his paper, talking clearly and cheerfully.  He was delighted by the positive, congratulatory, and encouraging comments from the audience.  At a reception he met many new scientists who sought him out to discuss the possibility of collaborating on future projects.  He even met the older scientist whose prior work Dr J. had corrected.  That scientist praised as genius the work of Dr. J.

But now it is the final weeks of the spring semester.  He was holding office hours for his teaching assistants and grading assistants.  He had done a random check of some of the graded work and had some points to discuss with one of the graders.  He skimmed through the following prepared lecture materials, and marked up some of the slides to show how some of the statements can be shortened so that the bullet wouldn’t spill into another line.  He did not look forward to this busy day of interacting with his assistants.

Also on his desk were two documents.  Prominently at the corner to the right to a person seated at the other end of the desk was the paper. The paper that had been published in the Journal after only one iteration of peer review.  The paper that was the basis of the follow-up research that he presented at his talk at the spring conference.   He was the sole author.

He paused for a moment to recall the genesis of that paper, his long hours researching and writing.

He thought of that cute assistant who wore the shorts and a tight tee-shirt during their interview on the warm August day at the start of that semester.  She had improved the critical equations in the paper including the proposal to combine three separate equations into a single more elegant equation: a proposal Dr J eventually accepted.   That equation allowed him to expand on the broader implications of his theory.  He did not recall her name, but he did regret that the early start of cold weather in the autumn.

He though of that assistant who had a mysterious rash on his face.  Every day, the rash had different shape and color.  In their discussions, Tim (or maybe his name was Jim) sat at the opposite side of the desk.   Tim (or Jim) found many of the references needed to connect the research to prior papers.  He even found that most important paper of the older scientist whose work Dr. J.’s research advanced and corrected.

He has new research assistants this academic year. Tomorrow he will meet with them to discuss the paper he hopes to submit before Autumn semester.   This new research has a lot of problems and the paper is not going very well at all.

Dr J. glanced at the second document.  Directly facing him was the list of courses assigned to him for the next school year.  He quickly shoved the paper in the top drawer of the desk.  He will need to deal with that later.

After the conferences with the teaching and grading assistants, he reviewed the course assignments again.  Despite his objection, he was assigned a course that covered a topic that was relevant to his published paper.  The course was very popular for seniors because the workload was not too challenging and the grading was lenient.  The professor who normally taught it will be out on sabbatical.  Dr. J knew it would be even more popular next year when students see his name as the teacher.

In addition to getting the new paper ready for submission over the summer, Dr. J. will need to fix this course.  He thought ahead to the final grades of the course.   He imagined some of the students boasting of their earning a high grade from Dr. J.   He must fix this course so that they earn that right, and that their claim will not later embarrass him.

Just before the start of the new semester, Dr J entered his office.  On his desk were two documents.  The same published paper sat at the corner to the right of the visitor’s chair.  On the left side near his chair was the marked up copy of the newer paper that still required a lot of work before it could be submitted.

In the next couple days, he will interview candidates to replace his previous research assistants.  The job for today is to prepare for the first lecture of the course he didn’t want to teach.  He received approval only for a few changes to the syllabus so he had to stick close to the basic outline of the course.  One approved change was to have two middle-term exams instead of one.  The first exam will occur after the third week of instruction.  He failed to win approval for his recommendations for more challenging material and even this new exam can not be worth more than 15% of the grade.  This new early exam will need to serve his goal of weeding out the unworthy students.

On test day, Dr J entered his office.  He frowned at the empty corner of his desk.  The day before he made specific act to clear that corner to receive the latest material from his new research assistants.  The asked for an extension for various reasons having to do with their coursework.   It was not helpful to be reminded of his increasingly late paper.  The focus for today was to review one last time the test he devised.

The 50 minute test had 50 questions.  Each question had a true/false answer making it easy to grade.  He took care to word each problem so that answer depended on careful reading.  He arranged the questions to have successive questions with closely related questions but with different phrasing to result in different answers.  He reasoned that with the time pressure, the familiarity of the prior question would encourage the student to repeat the earlier answer that would be wrong for this question.   He assured himself that even the smartest students will need to take the full period to complete the exam, and even they will likely get around 5 wrong just from missing a key phrase in the question.

When he entered the class, he was pleased to note that the atmosphere of apprehensive.  The class got the message that this would be a hard exam.

After the grading assistant returned the graded answer sheets, Dr J. reviewed the grades.  First he reviewed the distribution and dismissing the three outliers, he found a satisfying distribution to justify just 4 “A” grades and the majority of the class with “C” or below.  This was a good result.  The 4 “A” grades had all made 4-5 mistakes as he had anticipated.  But he had to address the three exams flagged by the grading assistant.

The first case was the only one that did not complete the full exam.  This answer sheet had only the first 25 questions answered and the remainder were not even attempted.  Dr J ignored the sticky-note by the grading assistant that all 25 were answered correctly.  Clearly this student should be encouraged to drop the course.

The second case was the paper flagged as turning in the exam early.  Everyone else in the class took the full 50 minutes.  This one student completed it in less than 30 minutes.  His score was perfect.  He didn’t miss a single question.  Dr J did not pay close attention to the students as they took the exam.  He didn’t anticipate cheating.  Dr J resolved that in the future he would pay closer attention to catch future cheating, and he would especially watch this particular student.  After thinking about it some more, he decided on a plan for the next lecture.  Before announcing the grade distribution and handing out the graded answer sheets, he would remind the class for the importance of student integrity and honesty.  When announcing the grades he will recognize in particular the one student who completed early and got a perfect score as a goal he expected from everyone.  Maybe someone will come forward with evidence of cheating.

The third case was the lowest grade in the class.  He only answered 5 questions correctly.   Clearly this student was not going to make in this class.  He should be encouraged to drop the course.

In the end the teacher was satisfied with his little test.  At best, 4 of the 40 students needed specific attention to assure that they are deserving of the privilege to claim a high grade from Dr J.   He memorized their names and would scrutinize them more closely as the class proceeded.  With skill he should be able to reduce that number to one.

The test was successful.  About half of the class received discouraging grades.  Perhaps many of these will drop the class.  Dr J will personally encourage three of them to take this route.

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One thought on “The test

  1. Pingback: Information supply chain is source of intelligible data for analytics | kenneumeister

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