Midterm One

electrodynamics midterm preparationWell, it is that time again. The first midterm exam for my electrodynamics course is scheduled for Thursday and I have to decide today what to put on it.

A key factor is that it is an open book exam. Last week I explained to the class (I have another excellent group this year) that an open book exam is in fact more challenging than a closed book one, since some of them seemed to be under the opposite impression.

The point is that since we all know that if they have the textbook and their class notes and so can look things up, I certainly can’t ask them anything that they can lift from those sources without thinking. Therefore I will be able to focus on testing their ability to think and apply the techniques that they have been (I hope) studying. This is, after all, the point of the exercise, isn’t it? More so than remembering equations, in any case. (Although one hopes that all physics students can remember Maxwell’s equations…)

The drawback to all of this is that I myself have to think harder in preparing the exam. I have to construct a challenging (in a positive sense) and fair exam. I can’t do this by just grabbing stuff wholesale from the book or my lecture notes and examples. So I have to start from scratch.

This can be fun, but is dangerous. I end up, if I am not careful, writing an interesting exam, by which I mean an exam where they approach a perhaps totally unfamiliar example and uncover and learn some new phenomenon or technique as the exam question unfolds. The idea is to trust that the techniques you know are up to the job and not to panic because the situation is a bit new. (Yesterday, as preparation for my style of exam, we went through my 2007 question that unpacks the Dirac monopole, seeing – I hope – that it was quite an easy question in the end…) I love exams like that, going all the way back to my own days as a student. Unfortunately, students are seldom excited about interesting material on an exam. I don’t know why.


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