Saturday, November 07, 2009

At the corner of stress and frustration

There was something in the air today.

Everyone (and I mean everyone) I dealt with today seemed beaten, defeated, on the verge of tears.

Including me.

What have the students got to be down about?

There's a bad case of Multiple Exam Syndrome going around campus.

Tuition money's scarce.

Time is scarcer.

And relations are a bitch, aren't they?

They're tricky, they're terrifying...but they're downright beautiful once you start to get the hang of them.

My 280 students did really well on the first go-through of Exam 2, getting caught up on 2 of the 5 questions, both of the bugbears having to do with equivalence relations. Those that took them nice 'n' slow and wrote out everything precisely and explicitly had no difficulties; those who just kind of threw some stuff down on the page fared more poorly.

I get the feeling that several of them were about ready to kill me by about 2:30 this afternoon.

One student caught me in transit as we headed to and from our respective classes, claiming dibs on my time once she got out of her Calc III class. "I've got three advising appointments between now and 5:00," I told her.


"Come on by, and I'll see what we can do."

"I don't know why you keep saying this exam is easy," she told me. "I'm finding it really hard, and you calling it easy makes me that much more frustrated."

"Maybe it's not so much easy as it is basic...or elementary. Meaning that you don't have to use complicated concepts to finish it...everything goes back to the definitions."

She stared at me somewhat icily.

Minutes later, another student cornered me in my office and confessed she'd not started the exam until that morning. She's a senior with a full course load, and had three papers due that week. I thought she was going to cry, and I knew for damn sure that if she started to cry, I'd start crying, too. We shared a candid conversation about how much was expected of us, and I'd like to think that we both left the office feeling a little better about where we are right now. (I did.)

Another student still admitted that she's simply no longer motivated about the class. She's a non-major who's recently come to the conclusion that, once she drops her math minor, she has no reason whatever for taking the class, except for the Writing-Intensive credit she'd be able to get from a major course anyway. She's enjoyed taking math classes, but when faced with the likelihood of being here for more than four years just to finish up her major (minors notwithstanding), she's finding it hard to get into the mathematical swing of things. "I hate to drop all of this on you," she told me.

"I really appreciate your honesty," I said. "I've always liked the fact that you're not going to bullshit me or hand me a line."

Things started to pick up a bit once Calc III got out (several of my 280 students are in that class) and the students drifted on over, one at a time, almost continually until just shy of 5:30. I noticed that the students weren't doing nearly as poorly as they thought they were doing, and I began handing out a few hints here and there to encourage them to keep moving in promising directions. One by one, the exams came in, most of them complete.

"I really, really understand relations now," one student confessed to me. He was fairly glowing with the excitement of understanding. "And that's really cool, because I didn't understand them at all before this exam."

Sweet. What I hope most for my exams is that they'll prove to be effective means of strengthening student understanding, offering yet one more chance for students to explore, to analyze, and to synthesize. Exams in upper-division classes are more for me than merely assessment tools; they're means for making better thinkers of my students.

In that regard, I think this exam succeeded.

As of 12:45 a.m., seven hours later and 40 minutes ago, I finished grading the exams.

They did all right.

Actually, they did quite a bit better than all right. Granted, I gave them a couple of different extra credit opportunities, but even so the class average was higher than I'd expected, roughly 79.1%, before the revisions I'll allow until next Friday. Aside from the two tricky problems dealing with equivalence relations, the exam proved to be a walk in the park.

They'll get the hang of it. It's all good.

And now I must away to bed; I've got to be up in about 5 hours in order to get to Super Saturday tomorrow (on the syllabus: Euclid versus Lobachevsky!) and to get a head start on grading Calc homework.

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