Saturday, September 27, 2014

Exams With 728 Students Are More Complicated Than You'd Think

I teach a popular first-year class at Carleton called "Mysteries of the Mind." It's got 728 enrolled students this semester. We have two exams, a final, and an essay. Today we had the first exam. I wanted to give you a taste of what goes into running an exam for this many people.

First of all, how on Earth do we have a class with over 700 people in it? I teach in one of the largest classrooms on campus, which seats 300. The course is a part of Carleton University Online (CUOL), so that students can register for a section where they watch the lectures on video. There are two people in the room running the cameras; I am miked and well-lit. The whole thing is very professional. The lectures are available online and on television in Ottawa. So that's where the other 437 students come from. Many of them are on-campus students who could not get into the in-class section because it was full.

They all need to write their exams at the same time, so nobody talks about what's on the test. Because many online students are working, we need to have these exams on nights and weekends. There are professional proctors we use, so CUOL has to make sure there isn't more than one CUOL class exam happening at the same time. So I schedule with CUOL when these exams will be a month before class starts.

All of these people have to sit somewhere--somewhere where they can comfortably look at the test and their answer sheet, so it can't be one of those crappy airplane-style desks. Not only that, they can't sit right next to each other, because it would make it too easy to cheat. There are only so many rooms on campus like this. So what happens is that they are spread out over about 10 rooms in two buildings, broken up by the section and first letter of their last name. So we have 10 proctors.

I bring my exams (multiple choice) and scantron sheets (machine-readable answer sheets) a half hour early to the exam room. I need a teaching assistant (TA) help me carry all of the paper. The proctors make piles of appropriate counts of tests and scantron sheets and they hustle off to their respective rooms. During the 2 hour exam time, the TAs and I wander from room to room, making sure everything is okay and answer content-questions. I have six TAs.

In each exam room each student sits with her student ID and pencils. At nine on the dot this morning all the tests were simultaneously handed out. At the half hour mark, attendance was taken. This takes quite long in the rooms that hold many people. Students can't enter after the half hour mark, and students also cannot leave until attendance is taken (all to prevent communication of what is on the test). So the students who are done quickly have to just sit there waiting until attendance is taken.

When the exams are all done, all the proctors bring the exams, scantrons, and the sign in sheets back to the exam room where a TA and I carry them back to my office they will be graded by machine. I will remove bad questions, etc., and the students get their grades.

The only time they all write the exam at the same place is for the final, where we take up a huge athletic room (see image at

That's for the regular students. But many students cannot make it to the exam time for religious or whatever reasons. So there are deferrals. Right now we have four different deferral times to accommodate those students. If a student is sick on the day of the deferral, they need an additional deferral. You might ask how often this happens. Well, with 700 people, everything happens.

We have distance students, in Toronto or Korea or whatever. In cities like Toronto and Vancouver we have testing centres, but if you're on your own you have to set up and get approved a proctor. CUOL handles this too, thank goodness.

Then we have special-needs students. I have had blind students; I have had incarcerated students.  I have students who need a special quiet room, or more time, due to learning disabilities. We have a separate exam centre for these situations. I have a TA in charge of the disabilities students and another TA in charge of deferrals.

And we do this three times a semester, twice a year.

Anyway, that's all I can think of --there's probably more to it that's not coming to mind right now. It's a big production and it's kind of exciting. I love that I'm communicating cognitive science to so many people. Lots of students watch these videos with their roommates or parents.

It's a lot of work for a lot of people, but I love it.

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