Creating exams with military precision

Exams start this week. Obviously, many students are busy and stressed at this time, but what about the people who set and mark the exams? Let’s take a look behind the scenes and talk to four lecturers who will be giving long exams in this period.

Tables full of cramming students, long queues at the best coffee bars. A quick look around the campus leaves no doubt that exam time has arrived. And it is equally plain to see when the exams are over again. Suddenly, the hard-won chairs and tables in the TU Delft Library and the faculties are empty.

Lecturers have a different, much less visible rhythm when it comes to exams. Devising questions, supervising, marking exams and answering students’ questions during the post-exam review sessions; a lot goes on between giving lectures and carrying out research – or in the evenings, at the weekends, and during holidays.

In the current exam period, lecturers Hans Welleman (CiTG), Gerrit van Ballegooijen (EWI), Paul Breedveld (3mE) and Joris Melkert (LR) will be responsible for one or more large exams or resits. Hundreds of students will be breaking out in a sweat over questions thought up by these examiners. Now, how exactly do they set up an exam? Is marking exams really such a tedious job? And how many students want to take a look at their marked exams?

Creating exams is a precision job

Thoroughness, consistency, military precision. All these things are essential. Creating an exam therefore requires intense concentration. The level of difficulty of the questions has to be right, assignments may not be re-used from previous exams, and results must not be too complicated. The scores have to add up correctly in accordance with pre-defined criteria because several lecturers and student teaching assistants will be marking large exams, and it must be clear to students why they got a 4 out of 10 for question 3b, for instance. Depending on the scope of an exam, creating it will often take at least two or three working days.

During the current period, lecturer Hans Welleman will be responsible for the resit for Structural Mechanics 3 and the exam for Structural Mechanics 4 for second and third-year students of Civil Engineering. “From halfway through the period, it becomes clearer what I want to ask during the exams. To facilitate the marking of the exams, I want answers to be in whole numbers as much as possible. It is like solving a puzzle,” he said. “I make two versions of some exams to prevent students from ‘collaborating’. I do this subtly so that it is not obvious that there are two different exams.”

Wellemans’ exams invariably contain a trick question. “I don’t deliberately try to wrong-foot students. If you have understood the theory, you won’t fall into the trap. My intention is to thwart people who are taking the exams opportunistically,” he said.

Lecturer Joris Melkert believes that exams should not be too predictable. “That is not appropriate for academic studies,” he said. Creativity is important. Melkert likes the work, but thinks the source is liable to run dry after a couple of years. “Maybe it’s a good idea to let someone else take over, then.”

For this period, Melkert has had to create three exams: the first year resit for dynamics, the first year exam for aerospace design and systems engineering elements and the second year digital exam on propulsion and power. He finds digital exams more difficult to make. “It requires a military degree of precision. The system is more vulnerable to mistakes,” he said. “You have to make sure that absolutely everything is programmed. The parameter validation has to be right. I get student teaching assistants to check that. And then I set aside a weekend to do all the sums.”

Paul Breedveld also makes sure he is well-prepared. He is very much aware of the importance of the exams for students. His third-year course integrated mechanical systems has now started for the first time. “Students are confronted with the Bachelor-before-Master rule. It often all depends on a single subject,” he said. “These students are intelligent adults who look at exams critically, and rightly so. You have to set up exams properly and soundly, and never lose sight of the educational goals.”

Breedveld sees the challenge in this work: “You want to ask intelligent questions with subsequent questions that do not build on each other. I think about how to get students to write an answer in such a way that I know they have understood it, and so that I can also check it quickly. You have to formulate things in a clear and uniform manner so that students are not confused during the exam. For that reason, we have an examination expert at the faculty who checks that everything is formulated clearly and consistently.”

Gerrit van Ballegooijen is not so fortunate. He prepares his part of the exam Mathematics 2 for first year students of 3mE without any assistance, and then sends it round to his colleagues for feedback, which he then incorporates into the exam. The exam starts with what he calls short answer questions. “If you don’t get enough points in this part of the exam, we don’t proceed to look at the open questions. It is a way to cut back on the time it takes to mark exams,” he said. “It is not so easy to come up with the short answer questions, though. A short answer means that the result has to be very precise.”

What about jokes? Does he ever incorporate them into his exams? Van Ballegooijen thinks that is a bad idea. “Assignments that would amuse lecturers are not always appropriate for students,” he said. “You need to ask realistic questions.”

Marking exams: boring, run-of-the-mill work

Marking exams is not something that lecturers tend to get excited about. It is a job that has to be done. “It’s a boring, run-of-the-mill job,” according to Breedveld. Nevertheless, marking exams requires concentration, as does entering the marks in the computer, because this requires a high degree of accuracy. Breedveld pulls a face. “It’s just a matter of bashing in numbers,” he said.

Easter or no Easter, there is no respite from marking exams. Or maybe some paperwork can be taken into a meeting, where there is some space. “You have to grab all the opportunities you can,” Welleman explained. “You do anything to avoid exceeding the marking period of 15 days.” Laughing, the lecturer says, “I have a photo of myself at the Drebbelweg location, with my trolley full of completed exam papers. Students were cheerfully wishing each other a good holiday, but all I would be doing was marking exams.”

Welleman speaks of his ‘little marking factory’, consisting of seven people for each exam. He marks a third of the exams himself to see what the students are producing. The other six markers are student teaching assistants. They work according to a protocol that Welleman set up. “You have to think long and hard about the marking criteria. When is something right or wrong, when should you exercise leniency, what should you do with mistakes that are due to previous errors? A student may have a good understanding of the subject matter, but still make a silly calculation error.”

Van Ballegooijen shares the marking work with the other nine lecturers in his subject. A second round of marking is needed to eliminate administrative errors: points that have been added up incorrectly, or marks that have been allocated to the wrong names. These things happen now and again. He doesn’t mind marking exams in the evenings or at the weekends. He has to divide his work over the available time anyway.

“Marking exams requires concentration. When I’m at home, I put on classical music, but don’t really listen to it. I can’t concentrate with the radio or TV on. They’re too distracting,” he said. “And I can’t cope well with too many exams in succession. That makes me work more and more slowly.”

Van Ballegooijen sees marking exams as the least enjoyable part of his work. Breedveld agrees: “You’re doing the same thing four hundred times, and often on Saturday evenings. So there’s my wife, sitting on the sofa watching a romantic comedy, while I sit next to her hammering away at the keyboard, entering figures.” Of course, he shares the work with colleagues, but he does the first fifty himself. “The marking model has to be tried and tested. There may be interpretations you haven’t even thought of,” he said. “After about fifty exam papers, I get a picture of what students are and are not capable of. The marking model, after all, is a hybrid of ‘what is this population capable of’ and ‘what should they be capable of’.”

Melkert has a different approach. He checks the first twenty exams twice to verify the consistency of his assessments. “If many students make the same mistake, you have to ask yourself whether it might be due to the way the question is formulated,” he said. He sometimes spends the entire Easter period marking exams. “That’s inevitable, because the allowed marking period is limited.”

Digital exams have made the work a lot less onerous, in his opinion. “Students’ handwriting has got worse and worse because they do everything on their laptop,” he said. “I get a headache trying to decipher it. Moreover, students can polish texts a bit using a word processor on a computer. That makes for better answers, which are not spread across three pages…”

Also, a computer is faster than he is at checking sums, Melkert knows. But a nuance is missing if it can’t see where a student went wrong. A mistake does not necessarily mean that the student didn’t have a good grasp of the theory. However, Melkert is ruthlessly strict: “If the result is wrong, the answer is marked wrong. It is a tough way to learn, but that is how it works. Aviation is terribly unforgiving for mistakes. If people die because you, as an engineer, have made a miscalculation, you go to prison.”

Even though none of the four lecturers relish marking exams, they all do the job as conscientiously as possible. As Welleman says, “You must never lose sight of the student’s interests. Of course, I sometimes think, ‘what a miserable performance’, after marking some of the less impressive efforts, but the next one may turn out to be very good. Each and every exam must be checked with the same amount of care and attention.”

Post-exam review sessions: have you made a mistake?

The last hurdle of an exam is giving students access to the marked exams. There is a lot of administrative work involved, because exams on paper have to be put in alphabetical order or arranged according to student number. Students can make an appointment directly with some lecturers, while other lecturers delegate the task to the secretary’s office or to student teaching assistants.

Breedveld announces his review sessions on the Blackboard well in advance so that students don’t bombard him with emails. “Otherwise, my inbox would fill up with 25 emails the moment the marks are published – often containing a message such as: I thought I had done the exam well but I got a four. Did you perhaps make a mistake?”

Melkert frequently gets visits from students who try to negotiate, as he puts it. “They think there is more scope for that with paper exams. I get far fewer questions with digital exams,” he said. “I think that’s partly because students get the results straight away. Apparently they have more faith in that system. It produces hard figures.”

Abbreviations Note:

CiTG – Civil Engineering and Geosciences

EWI – Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science

3mE – Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering

LR – Aerospace Engineering

Editor Redactie

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