Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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This week had a lot of exam marking come with it. While not fiendishly difficult to do, it isn’t the most enjoyable activity for the sheer boredom of going through answers for the same question hundreds of times. While I am tempted to say that the odd student will find a new way to get something wrong every now and again, the mistakes made are generally very similar and the challenge of figuring out what people were thinking and how many marks to give them for that wears off fairly quickly.

And then there are the depressing stretches. Many students seem incapable of writing a single correct sentence in their mother tongue even before your start looking at the maths. Looking through those can be an effort – not just because my obsessive-compulsive self has to restrain itself to not cross all that gibberish out, but also because it makes it much harder to figure out what people did or at least tried to do.

Figuring out what people are doing there is also much harder when they don’t bother to write anything but formulae. While I don’t require them to write essays, a few short notes would certainly help: Writing what they are claiming to be true, stating where the proof starts, stating that they are using Induction as a method, clearly marking where they use the Induction Hypothesis and so on. None of these is hard to do and they have been demonstrated many times throughout the term. But still, writing things up properly hasn’t made it into the DNA of the students after a term.

Admittedly, getting used to writing maths properly is one of the bigger challenges when starting to do it at uni as school ‘teaches’ people mainly to do computations and usually omits the main point which is making an argument – i.e. pretty much the opposite of what people should be learning and (attention overly optimistic world-view!) what people might enjoy more. I quite liked the system we used for freshers when I was at Warwick: In addition to the normal marks for exercises, the students could be awarded ‘clarity’ marks for their writeup. This was great as on the one hand marks speak a very clear language that students can grasp more easily than well-intended comments by their supervisors. And on the other hand it was entirely positive. They could get full marks without any of those ‘clarity’ marks (which was very and and unlikely in most cases) or they could sit down and think a bit about what they write and be rewarded it with this bonus. I think that worked quite well. The students’ way of writing things up improved and as a consequence their work also became better and easier to read and mark. A win for everybody.

But even apart from the writing, many students have problems with solving the (at most moderately difficult) exercises correctly. And a few hand in tragic work. When you read it, you get the impression that they either never visited lectures or everything taught there didn’t stick at all. Their answers just seem to be a collection of factoids stuck to one another in no sensible order and with no idea what’s actually going on. When reading their answers you start wondering why they didn’t run out of the exam, crying. It’s almost tragic.

Luckily, every now and again there will be a really nice set of answers which gets things just right: All the text necessary to explain things but no more. A clear argument, written up with linebreaks and white space to make it jump at you with no extra effort. Those were rare but could cheer me up again.

Which brings me to the topic of odd marking techniques. Of course you need to mark things in a way that is fair and can be understood. But when looking at the less thrilling work handed in you start observing a few things: With a few basic exercises to solve, the marks people get for all those are correlated. You could try to play statistics on those to still get a reasonable result. But of course that’s not an option. And, interestingly, after a few dozen samples, you’ll probably have a fairly good idea of the marks the student is going to get after reading the first line of the answer. I assume the style of writing is related to how secure and relaxed students are which again is related to how well they know the topic. Of course things can still go wrong after a start that looks good and very rarely there are positive surprises after a not-so-promising start, but the general trend seems to be there.

The final issue is writing. Girls’ work is more pleasant to mark simply because it’s usually more legible. A few students had prepared their own exam ‘stationery’ for which they had printed their name and uni number on each page to save the time/effort of having to write it themselves in the exam. A sweet idea, I guess, even though using Times New Roman for it isn’t the most stylish thing you can do. Still beats the person who used Comic Sans, though. I really had to discipline myself to not deduct marks for lack of style there…

February 9, 2008, 15:15

Tagged as uni.


Comment by Dave2: User icon

Really? Since most people look down upon Times now-a-days, and prefer to use crap like “Comic Sans”… I find that Times has come full-circle and is quite stylish!

February 9, 2008, 17:16

Comment by ssp: User icon

I’m afraid that I just don’t like the look of Times too much. I just don’t like its pointed angles and its thin look. Which doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it as a typeface that’s good at what it was designed for.

I am sure you can use Times in fantastic ways. But in almost every single case its usage will communicate “I just used the default font in Word” more than anything else. And it will be difficult (or interesting) to escape from that.

February 9, 2008, 17:52

Comment by maurits: User icon

coincidence :-)


February 12, 2008, 0:30

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