Monday is the beginning of Finals Week. Because I'm department chair currently, I teach three classes instead of the normal four-class load, and I gave one of my finals already. I had permission from our dean's office because it was scheduled for this Thursday night, 8:00 to 10:00 pm, which is the night before our JCAST Commencement -- our college's graduation. It's a bit cruel-and-unusual to make graduating seniors hang out taking a final exam until almost midnight when they'd really rather be home hanging out with all the family and friends who have arrived in town to go to their graduation the next day.
So, this weekend, I'm grading those finals. It's for an advanced theory course, and rumor around the department is that students think it's kind of hard. Of course, I don't think it's unreasonably hard. But yes, students do need to know their stuff, and my experience has been that, when I hold them to high (but reasonable) standards, they rise to the occasion more often than not. A lot more often than not.
On their normal exams, given during the semester, I do like to throw in a question or two that might ease some of their anxiety...hell, might even make them smile a little. Like, a multiple choice question that asks
Which of the following is our mascot here at Fresno State?
a. a peacock
b. Sheldon, from "Big Bang Theory"
c. Baby New Year
d. "Time Out"
e. Dr. Reid's pet hamster
On final exams, I like to throw in one short answer question that elicits reflection on the semester. On this one, I asked, "What is the most important thing you learned about yourself this semester?"
Not only does this likely provide them with a few moments to breathe easy, as they realize there is no wrong answer, but it also encourages them to take a breath, in the middle of the anxiety of finals, and think about what they've just accomplished.
Today, I read this answer to that question in one of the exams:
"The most important thing I have learned about myself is that, when I apply myself, good things happen. I'm a horrible procrastinator and this class really pushed me to stay on top of things. It also helped to show that I have the knowledge I need for my future. I don't need to rely on teachers to give me the information or tell me what answers they are looking for because I already know the answers. By applying myself and looking to myself for answers, and the knowledge I have learned...I can do great things."
Reading that a student has gained confidence in her own intelligence and ability to figure out what's important in our discipline? Priceless.
So, yes, another reason I give the students one of these "gimme" questions on the final exam is so that I have lots of reason, during this, the most stressful time of the semester, to do one of these now and then.