A Professor’s Journal: Midterms teach lessons too

You wait, hunkered down in the hall, back against the wall, legs splayed out, a coffee cup in one hand and tattered notes in the other. The professor arrives 10 minutes early to unlock the door.

You always seem to gravitate to the same familiar seats, seeking out a degree of comfort and ease in an atmosphere filled, at least on examination days, with tension and unease. You have your own routines of test-taking, too. Some line up sharpened No. 2 Ticonderoga pencils in a corner of the desktop and wait expectantly, hands folded neatly on the desk, for me to pass out the examination packets.

Others rifle through class notes or flip note cards or study marked up textbooks until the last possible second before I come looming over their desks to hand out the tests. Some of you take deep breaths and silently fashion a prayer before getting down to the work at hand.

Whatever the student’s ritual, it is always a humbling experience for the professor, we who stand in judgment, we who are about to evaluate identification and essay responses covering weeks of textbook readings and classroom discussions. What an awesome task to grade the written work of students struggling to find snatches of time between jobs, personal responsibilities and other classes to prepare for an examination that will largely determine the marks on their midterm grade reports.

Oh, there are other factors—quizzes, attendance, class participation—but these midterm exams provide the primary means to gauge a student’s progress,

You can already check your midterm grades on MyGate. Some of you will already know that you have done well. Others will breathe sighs of relief. Still others will begin a mad scramble to catch up, to make amends for poor work ethics or misused time or misplaced priorities during the first half of the semester. And, sadly, a few of you will consider calling it quits, in despair over ever being able to overcome the disaster of these midterm results. Talk to your professors. You can still get on track.

Now, on this side of the desk, professors pore over the midterm essays, making corrections or suggestions, writing comments such as “too vague” or “give a specific example” or “ ‘alot’ is not a word” in the margins. I no longer use red ink; a more subtle black ink will serve my purposes. For me, though, this is the most onerous of teaching tasks.

It would be so much easier if I could teach and not be held accountable for holding students accountable. Without assessment, how would I ever know if my teaching has translated into learning at all?

I fret over each deducted point, over each C just a few points shy of a B. I dread having to bring the stacks of exams back to class, handing them back to students who alternately emit muffled exclamations of excitement or dismay, depending on the grade. I see proud students sitting up just a little bit straighter, next to others whose shoulders droop immediately after checking out the grade.

I have you number one through six on a blank piece of notebook paper and ask you to respond to six questions: 1. What was your initial reaction upon seeing your grade? 2. Estimate how many hours per week you spend on this class outside of class. 3. Estimate how many hours … or minutes … or seconds you spent preparing specifically for this examination. 4. Set a goal–a grade–for yourself for the next exam. 5. What do you need to do differently to achieve that goal. And then the kicker. 6. What do I need to do differently to help you achieve that goal.

That brief post-test exercise always seems to help. For now that we are at the midpoint of the term, any professor worth his or her salt is concerned about how we together can make the last half of the semester better than the first. Let’s make it better … together.


Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history.