Friday, February 25, 2011

Midterm Madness

I usually teach writing, and only writing. Endless comp classes of one kind or another, my life a slightly fraying, slightly warping tape loop.

Except that every once in a while, I get paroled for one-fourth of my semester's course load for a lit class. This semester, it's your basic survey of literature class, a 200-level course that is designed to introduce students to the joys of literature.

Next week, there's a midterm exam. I gave my students the format for the midterm exam this week. I'm only holding them to five weeks of material for the midterm, because they also had a short essay that they turned in and I figure it may take some time for some of the most recent stuff to sink in.

It is not open book. There is no study guide. It covers a finite amount of material that we have been discussing from (I swear it feels like this) the beginning of time. I explained to the class that I expect them to be able to apply key concepts to selections from the book--an anthology that also contains explanations of how to approach and understand literature, a nice little book, really--and that I will give them the excerpts they need to complete the exam. The exam has a variety of question types. It should take them an hour.

This is what transpired when I made the terrible mistake of asking, "Are there any questions?"

Student A: Are we going to be responsible for things in assigned chapters of the book that we haven't discussed in class?

Me: Yes.

Student A: But, we haven't discussed them!

Me: Yes, but we've discussed nearly everything, and you've applied these concepts in class to selections of texts, individually and in groups.

Student A: But, how can we understand them if we haven't discussed them in class? I'm really confused.

Me: We have discussed most of the material in class. It's impossible to discuss all of the material from the text in class.

Student A: But, I don't really learn anything unless it's discussed in class. How am I supposed to know this?

Me: Well...this is a 200-level course, and it's your responsibility to ask questions about material from the text that you don't understand. You've had plenty of opportunity to ask questions about material that you don't understand.

Student A, indignantly: When? Can you tell me when I've had the opportunity to ask these questions?

Me, politely: Yes, I can. In every class, I ask the class if there are things from the book that you don't understand. That's one opportunity. I also hold many office hours per week, and those provide another opportunity for you to ask questions about things that you don't understand. And you're often asked to respond, in writing, to questions about the course material, at the beginning and the end of class. I can think of several instances in the first half of the semester when those responses would have provided opportunities for you to ask questions about materials you don't understand.

Student B, quietly: This is bullshit!

Me: What was that, Student B?

Student B: Nothing.

Student C: I think what Student B was trying to say is that this is going to be really hard. I mean, without notes. And you just sprung it on us.

Me, calmly: Okay, then. As this is a 200-level class with a 100-level course as its prerequisite, I've been operating under the assumption that each of you knows how to read a syllabus--the same syllabus that we went over as a group on the first day of class. That syllabus clearly explains that there will be a midterm exam and it gives you the date. I'm also operating under the assumption that this isn't the first exam you've ever taken, given that this is a 200-level course. So...if you've had the information ahead of time and I'm also explaining the exam more than a week in advance, I'm at a loss as to how this exam and its nature can be a surprise. Other questions?

Student D: If you're not going to hold a review session, can we at least have a review guide or something?

Me, again calmly, politely: You do have review materials at your disposal. You have your textbook. You have your notes. You have handouts on material that we've covered. You have quizzes that you've taken. You also have many office hours between now and the exam to come and discuss material with me. If you can't make office hours, email me.

The class reacted to this as though I had dropped a bomb on them. Luckily, the timing of this was such that after I reminded them of their many review options, it was time for class to end. I told them that I was available to answer questions after class, and not one of the 40 of them lingered to ask.

Not one has come to office hours. Not one has emailed. As far as I know, no one's complained to my chair, either.

Moments like these in the classroom feel like tipping points to me: If I really think about the implications of the ways in which my students communicated with me--I mean, really, really, really think about them--I will teeter into an abyss from which I will never emerge, and despair for the future of humanity.


  1. No study guide? My students would have organized an uprising if I dared not to offer a study guide.

    I discovered, however, that any old bunch of handouts thrown together at the last minute is enough to serve as a study guide and allay their anxieties as to having no study guide to prepare.

    It's not like they actually look at the study guide. It's the comforting feeling that it's there they want.

  2. Every year, they get seeming more, and more, and MORE immature. It's what we get when a generation is raised with every moment scheduled and supervised: dull, unimaginative, CHILDREN with no initiative. Ever notice how few of them even take notes in class? And of course none of them ever come to office hours.

    God help us when these kids enter the workforce. I've so far been able to dodge complaints since I abolished study guides by handing out a list of readings, and saying, "Here, this is a study guide."

  3. My students copy diligently every single word I say or write on the board. I once said, "This is really stupid" apropos of something. And observed with horror how they patiently wrote it down verbatim.

    "Stop copying!" I sometimes want to scream. "And start thinking!"

  4. Frod hits it right on the head. Greta's students are just like mine, and I've had this same class.

    I try to shake them out of it, try to show them that the responsibility is theirs.

    But it works less and less each year.

  5. Alas, it's not just you. I teach 200-level lit every semester (along with 3 sections of comp) and it's like this every single semester.

    Last semester for my early American lit midterm, I acceded to the request for a study guide. I handed out a list of terms I'd used in class (which were available online in the few lectures I have in PowerPoint). I dutifully included the list of authors right off the course calendar.

    How many of them got a D or failed the exam? Seven. Out of 23. Of those 7, 3 went on to fail the course completely. The other 4 got their shit together and scraped a C.

    The most shocking thing: nobody complained.

    I have taught classes where 2/3 of the students flunked the midterm, even with a study guide and 1/3 of the questions coming straight out of the lecture from the class just previous to the test (posted online immediately after the session).

    It's not you. It's them. Just keep doing what you need to do to stay sane.

  6. I'm with Clarissa both times.

    Anything will work as long as it has "study guide" on top. You can even use it to wrap fish. My study guide is just a list of the course objectives/sub-objectives and key terms. I always get praised in my comments for having a study guide and no complaints. Every once in awhile a student will email me with a question -- but the questions tend to be so similar that I use a keyboard macro to give a standard answer.

    Minimal work and everyone is happy.

    Also like Clarissa's 2nd post, I got frustrated with the students simply copying the Powerpoints. So for those times I use that, I've gotten my slides down to just 3 or 4 words.

    That way, after they copy those words, they actually have the chance to listen.

    Now, I'm not saying whether they do or don't listen, but at least that gives them enough rope to do it.

    What they do with that rope, only the winds on the range know.

    - Free Range Prof

  7. I stopped offering "study guides" as a grad student, after the first "But that wasn't on the study guide. Why was it on the test? Waaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh."

  8. Ah Greta. I love your posts, as they so often mirror my own similar experiences, but in a more entertaining way than I would be able illustrate them.

    I have been mentioning the exam (which is next Thursday) at the beginning of each class. The only problem is, other than a delightful core group of 5 students (for whom I am very grateful and to whom I dedicate my energy each class), the rest of this dumbass class strolls in up to half an hour late. So they miss a lot. Fuckers.

    They complained yesterday about the 'abruptness' of the exam when I began talking about it. It is still one week away, and it is on the syllabus, I said. I am giving a study guide on Tuesday, and they complained about that. Well, you have your notes, and the text book, I said. And you know you won't look at the study guide until the night before anyway.

    They muttered, but I breezed by them and began explaining about the procedure for turning in their essays on Tuesday. Oh boy, I can hardly wait for those.

  9. Do notes taken by illiterates do any good?

  10. @overductd

    don't you mean, "do any well?"

  11. I have a stock answer to "Are you going to give a study guide?" I smile, say, "Of course," take the textbook and hold it in front of them.

  12. Study guide? I've handed my students a list of questions from which I will be taking a few for the exam and I've received complaints: It's not fair, there's too much to prepare, how can I remember all this? One class actually went to my chair to complain about how unrealistic I was being. So I said, fine, no questions in advance. Good luck on your exam.

    The questions ARE the study guide. Argh.

  13. Best midterm question so far:

    "Prof, I don't understand what you mean about Dr Social Disease's interpretation of the collapse of the Berlin Wall."

    "Well, it's in the chapter."

    "Oh, right! I hadn't read that far when I emailed you."

    In other words, I emailed you a question about a reading covered on the exam, but I had not yet READ the chapter.


  14. Honest curiosity from a student: is it more work to put together a study guide or another quiz?

    I'd personally prefer quizzes since they give you feedback and a peek at how the instructor writes questions. Perhaps I'm a minority among my fellow conglomerations of crystalline water, though.

  15. My survey classes get a study guide. I take the instructor's guide from my textbook and copy n paste every part of the "when the student finishes reading the chapter they should..." section. Then I add in a long list of names, places, events, things, etc, that I mention in lecture or are on the ppt outline, or in the text.

    For non survey classes I simply tell them that student guides are for freshmen classes and this is a upper division class.

  16. @BlackDog: that sounds about right. Thank god my students aren't the last enclave of lazy stupidity. I can deal with dumb, but when it's lazy dumb, I get mad! My favorite was:
    Student: could you tell me how to answer this question on redhar der brugel?
    Me: I don't teach that. I don't even know what that is.
    Student: So you won't help me?
    Me: NO, that's not for my class. You're taking that class from another professor.
    Student: oh, I got you mixed up with my other class... So can you help me? I think that teacher's office is across campus and I already walked here.

  17. Flake: "Are we going to have a review for the exam?"

    Me: "What do you think we've been doing in class for the last month?"

  18. Greta: this is great! Reminds me one Educ pedagogy class where, in exasperation, I snarkily emoted: what else can I possibly do to make this any easier?! All you have to do is read the chapter!! How hard is that?!!

    One student responded: you could send us summaries of the chapters so we don't have to read them!

    Her classmates all nodded heartily.

    She's now teaching k-12 & makes more than I do.

  19. > She's now teaching k-12 & makes more than I do.

    Let me guess: her name is Cameron Diaz?

    Sometimes life just hands you material.

  20. Good one, Frod! I can only hope she's at least getting some mileage out of being that dumb (pronoun deliberately vague).

    The first thing I thought when I watched the trailer was: "I want to be her." The second thing I thought was, "An American audience wouldn't find it as amusing if she were 50 pounds heavier and 30 years older."

  21. @Pat from Peoria - I put some wording to this effect on my study guides. "No guarantees are expressed or implied regarding the use of this study guide. I have attempted to include all possible terms and concepts, but I am not guaranteeing that I have."

  22. I'd be really, really tempted to tell them that, since 200-level lit classes teach skills as well as content, the midterm would be a close reading of a passage from a work that they explicitly *haven't" seen, but that bears some key similarities to (and differences from) the ones they have seen. I might even give them a choice of two or three passages (and, of course, no points for identifying the source of a passage if they did happen to be familiar with it; the comparisons to class readings would be the point).

    This approach would, of course, absolutely, positively blow their minds, and you'd probably be run out of town on a rail. But it would be a perfectly fair, and very good, exam, in part because it would separate those interested in actually thinking from those who aren't. And you wouldn't have to write a study guide (well, maybe you could provide a list of themes, tropes, etc. for them to be familiar with, and capable of identifying not only in the passages they've seen, but in a novel one).

    I must say, study guides are an entirely new concept for me. I don't think I ever received one from a teacher (I did buy a few commercial ones for APs and entrance exams).


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