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.