Math Exams

I gave exams this week, which means that both my students and I are in emotional turmoil. My calculus students struggled to complete the exam in time, which isn’t typically true of my exams, so I need to compare this year’s exam to last year’s. I did have a worry as I was writing it that it was a little long, and I should have listened to my gut! The exam I gave in abstract algebra didn’t seem too long for the students, but I know students struggled. Now I have to grade all of the accumulated exams and have the usual emotional baggage. I feel disappointed in myself and in the students. I doubt myself. I question my fitness for teaching. I get angry at the students for not trying harder, and I even get angry at them for making mistakes. I feel hopeless about the class and about the possibility of any forward progress at all. Dreary and gross stuff that I really don’t even want to admit.

Exams are a situation of artificial pressure. Exams are weak on authentic importance. These exams are only important because I will use it to write down grades for the students. The grades are important to me because they give me a way to assess my class and the students in it, determining whether individual students and the class as a whole met the objectives of the course. The grades are important to the students because they want good grades in order to stay in school, keep scholarships, look good to others, be attractive to employers, and meet requirements of a program or major. Note that none of those things involve student learning. What I want to do in my life is to help students understand and use mathematics, to be powerful with math. A test can only do that as an accidental outcome. A test might help me to assess if I have helped students, but the only way for a test to help with learning is if the pressure of the test helps students to put forth more effort, or if, when faced with a bad test outcome students make a change in their learning habits or approach.

But I have seen first hand what happens when students aren’t having tests — the majority of them don’t push themselves to work. Maybe students are addicted to tests, and thus we are all addicted to this unpleasant experience. Maybe I’m addicted to tests because I have developed too few other methods for helping students to motivate themselves. In any case, I don’t know what to do about it, so I keep giving tests.