Goldilocks Final

So it is the final exam for my quantum field theory class tomorrow, and today I need to write it and typeset it. I’d given them a choice of exam. They seemed to want a take-home exam, but I warned them that a take-home is probably going to be way more challenging. I’d be thinking up newer, harder material that you can’t just google the results for. An in-class exam has a time limit, which seems to freak people out, but on the other hand (assuming the examiner (me) is a reasonable person – and I think I’ve given them every reason to believe that) it is likely to be written to be solvable in the assigned couple of hours. So there is a much stricter limit to the length or depth of what they’re going to be asked to do. If they’ve really been following along in the class and doing the homework, they should be able to get most of the exam done without breaking a sweat in 3/4 of the time allowed… maybe the last 1/4 of it might need a bit of furrowing of the brow, squinting the right way, scribbling hurriedly here and there, but in the spirit of a challenge, not torture. Even if they don’t get every last part solved, a well-designed exam will give them several opportunities to show off what they’ve learned.

I like setting take-home exams too, but I’ve a soft spot for in-class exams, I’ll admit. As you may have guessed, I loved in-class exams when I was a student. Yeah, I’m weird. This does not mean that I always scored super-well on them, but I enjoyed the process, if I had a sense that it was a fair exam. It was a tournament, with everyone in the same situation. All you brought in with you were your pens, pencils and wits. You enter, and then the stage was set for a battle between you and the examiner. (I loved it when I had interesting exam questions where I actually learned something while doing it too.) The clock was set, engines running, revving, a bit of nervous anticipation, and then go! – I’d open the booklet and read what my assignment was going to be for the next two or three hours. It had a pleasing simplicity to it… all you needed was good preparation (including a lot of practice and study), good strategy, a bit of luck, and (of course) a good night’s sleep…

Well, they chose the in-class exam, but I get the impression that for them it was like a death row convict choosing the method by which they were to be dispatched – lethal injection or electric chair… I wish I could get students to think of it more as a choice of event to enter in a sporting event – run a mile, or go on a 12 mile hike? Both have challenge elements, neither will kill you if you’ve been doing a bit of exercise regularly. Additionally, both have a fun element and both are… yes I am going to say it… good for you.

Ok, so off to have a bit of a think about it. I want it not too hard and not too easy… I want it just right.


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12 Responses to Goldilocks Final

  1. Henry says:

    My favorite exam of all time was the Putnam math competition. It was 6 hours, 12 gloriously difficult math questions, but all of them superbly interesting. About 3 hours in I noticed something was deeply wrong with the situation – I was so happy and excited to be taking that test!

    I didn’t do well either! In fact, I did unspeakably bad. But that didn’t take away from its fun.

    Of course, I didn’t have a grade riding on it, either…

  2. candace says:

    Straight up: If I’d had the chance to have take home exams, I would have my MSc now. 🙁

  3. Rhys says:

    I too typically enjoyed exams, although I always felt a bit guilty about it when I saw how miserable most of my fellow students were.

    Third year quantum mechanics stands out in my memory (it was only six years ago, I suppose). The previous exams, to which we were allowed access to help us study, were all along very similar lines, but on the day of our exam we were confronted by quite a different paper. It required the same knowledge and set of skills to answer, of course, but I came out of it feeling like I’d learnt something new. With few exceptions, the others came out bitching and moaning about how they “weren’t prepared for that”. 🙂

  4. robert says:

    One of the few exams I really enjoyed was for an Oxford math MSc. A set of problems was issued a week before the candidates were examined individually and orally on questions they selected by a panel of the local good and great. The whole thing was remarkably cheery, with the examiners squabbling amongst themselves on how they thought the various problems should have been dispatched. At the end the candidates were told whether they had passed before they left the room; those who failed were then required to undergo a more conventional closed book in-class test. As the examiners had to then set and mark this it was rare indeed for anyone to be asked to sit it. Such laxity would not be tolerated these days I’m sure. Nonetheless it was fun.

  5. cvj says:

    You should post your final here, I’d like to see how I would do with it. I’d like to see what I remember. 🙂

    All the best,

  6. Clifford says:

    Dear cvj,

    Consider using another identifier to avoid confusion, by the way.

    As for your request…No. I do not do that.


  7. Ele Munjeli says:

    I just finished my finals, and I did enjoy all of them. But part of that is because my school has no grades, just evaluations, and anyone who really bombs can retake the exam in most subjects. I was still working on alternative solutions to the last question in my programming exam this evening, even though I turned the test in at 11:30 this morning. It was really just an interesting problem that could be solved in a variety of ways…

  8. chris vj says:

    Sorry about that! I realized only after posting.


  9. Clifford says:

    No problem!


  10. Clifford says:

    Dear All… Thanks for the comments… The good news is that it seemed to go well… the students seemed to enjoy it, more or less, and everyone did a good stab at the exam, as far as I can see so far, so a success of sorts.


  11. Yvette says:

    Ha, I definitely would have gone for an out of class exam myself. Yes, I know they’re supposed to be easier, but I was just so abysmally AWFUL at taking them and I never figured out why I don’t test well (like seriously, I’d do well on the homeworks and then fail the exams). Some weird quirk that was beyond frustrating because I’m obviously good enough at physics to get an M.S. in it!

    Funny thing tho is my dad has already made me promise to never give a take home final when I become a professor. Apparently back in his day he was made to take many an incredibly awful take home because per him “there’s nothing worse than spending all day on an exam and then being dead tired but unable to go to sleep because you know you’re not done.”

  12. AnonymousSnowboarder says:

    My favorite exam of my school years was the Soph. QM class. I got a 28 and was totally horrified until the Prof. (an elderly man who was probably around in the early days of QM) put up the curve and I found I had a B. Thank goodness for relativity!