Thursday, December 15, 2016

Final exams, fueled by muffins

I'm proctoring the final exam in my first-year composition class when a student comes up and asks to use the bathroom, but before I can say a word, he pulls out his smartphone and wallet and places them on my desk. 

I understand where this comes from--I've certainly proctored exams in which I wouldn't let students out of the room at all, or else I've confiscated their communication devices if they had too leave. This exam, though, is different: students have two and a half hours to write a complete essay in response to a prompt, drawing evidence from two short readings and the film we watched last week--but they are allowed to use any resources they can carry into the classroom. (Except for people: No, you may not carry your roommate into the room to write your paper for you.)

Only two students elected to write the essay out by hand; the rest brought their laptops. They may refer to notes, prior writing assignments, books, anything they've got on that laptop; the only rule is that they're not allowed to access anything online during the class period. I require them to turn their desks toward the back wall so I can see the screens, which may discourage them from seeking out online summaries, but realistically, I can't watch 20 computer screens constantly for two and a half hours, so anyone really determined to cheat could find a way. On the other hand, the prompt is so specific that they're unlikely to find any ready-made essays out there in Plagiarism Land, so cheating would be more trouble than just sitting down and writing the essay.

I told them before class, "If you need to use the rest room, go right ahead--you know where it is. If you need some juice or muffins, here they are at the front of the room. Just don't disturb your classmates." By this point in the semester, they know the value of keeping their nose to the grindstone, so there they sit, hard at work. You can just about see those little hamster-wheels in their brains whirling--if you could harness that power, you could light the world.

And yes, I bring juice and muffins for an 8:30 a.m. final--because they had to walk across campus in subfreezing temperature, and because I want them to think clearly for this exam even if they've been up all night studying and skipped breakfast. Also, they've worked really hard this semester and deserve a treat. Getting out of bed for an 8 a.m. first-year writing class for 15 long weeks (with very little absenteeism) is an accomplishment deserving of some sort of reward.

But where is my reward? Right here in this room, where fingers are flying across keyboards and ideas are flowing and the essays will soon be streaming in.

(And if there are leftover muffins, they'll make the grading go much more smoothly. Have one. Plenty for all!)

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