The Double Difficulty of Exams

Writing exams is hard. But so is writing them.


I remember vividly the moment I was most nervous about an exam. As I walked to the exam room that sunny morning, I felt a tightening in my back as if someone hatestd wrapped a heavy belt around me and had begun twisting.

I wasn’t on my way to take the exam, however. I was on my way to give it.

Sitting for an exam has, of course, its challenges. There are names and dates to recall, formulae to remember, essays to construct — but to my mind the difficulty in answering all those questions is less daunting than the difficulty in making them up in the first place.

For one thing, if a student does badly on the exam, he only hurts himself. But if the exam itself is not constructed fairly, then the whole class suffers. This was the idea that plagued me as I took that first long walk to hand out that first examination. Were the questions too hard? Were they clear enough?  Did I really cover everything in class that I think I did? What if everyone fails?

Over the years, as I’ve given more and more exams, I’ve relaxed a bit, but I still worry. Have I repeated questions twice? Did I accidentally leave out the right answer in a multiple choice question? Did I inadvertently introduce a trick somewhere? Is the hint I provided really helpful, or does it just confuse things?

The most disastrous exam I ever devised was one that students said they wanted. I asked what format they wanted for the exam; they replied “scavenger hunt.” So I obliged, and on exam day they went scampering off across campus looking for questions and writing answers. But I underestimated how physically taxing the whole thing would be, and when the marks came in I felt so guilty, I gave everyone a “fortitude bonus” for going enduring the grueling experience. The misadventure  still seems like a bad dream to me.

I once gave students an oral final exam which presented its own challenges. For one thing, I needed to have a record of the answers since, in theory, students are able to appeal their grades after the course is over (I think I still have the tape). For another, there was a matter of organizing the time. I ended up giving the question to the students, giving them twenty minutes to make notes and formulate their answers, then ten minutes each to present each response. I varied the order of the presentations, since there were both advantages and disadvantages to going first or last. Luckily for me, there were only three students in the class.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I know that sitting for an exam is no walk in the park. For some it is a downright nightmare. But if it makes you feel any better, as you are worrying about how well you are answering the questions, there is a good chance your prof is worrying about how well he asked them.


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