An Update on Streamlining Exam Marking

I really hate marking exams – it’s mind-numbingly boring. I find that one of the most frustrating aspects of this tedious task is the time I waste just hunting for the answers. Consequently, I am always looking for new types of exam questions and new exam formats that can make the answers easier to find.   A while back I posted some advice on setting effective exams – which included suggestions for streamlining the marking process.  I was planning to try the idea of using a summary sheet at the front of the exam where the students could put their answers, making it easy for me to find them.  I’ve actually had some time now to refine that idea and test it out on a couple of exams, and here’s what I’ve come up with.  I think it works pretty well.

The worst case scenario for finding exam answers is to use a question sheet and a standard (blank) exam booklet.  I learned early on what a marking nightmare this presents – most students would do the questions in random order!  So I would not only waste time hunting within questions for answers – I would have to flip back and forth through the exam booklet just trying to find the question I wanted to mark.  Some students would even split up the answers to the individual questions! Talk about a marking time-pit!  Another disadvantage to this approach was that the students had no idea how much I was expecting for an answer – so they filled pages and pages with irrelevant information in their desperate efforts to get a good mark.

The next thing I tried was to set up my own exam booklet – with appropriately sized spaces for all of the answers.  You’d think that this would simplify things considerably – well… not so much.  Almost all of the students scribbled answers in the margins around the question itself – using microscopic-sized print – and left the blank spaces I had put for the answers… blank!  Very frustrating.

So – I thought my summary sheet idea would be a real winner.  However,  as one commenter so wisely pointed out, this idea had one important practical limitation – I’d still need to check inside the exam booklet to make sure the student had actually done the work to back up that answer.  In setting up my first test of the idea, I also realized that some students might not remember to flip back to the front to put their answers on the summary sheet – given the stress that they are typically under in the exam situation.  So I decided to compromise on the plan and prescribe answer locations by putting the answer boxes with the actual questions.  I also made it patently clear that the only way to get full marks was to put the answers in these boxes.  Here’s an example below – you can click on the picture to see a bigger view.

Screenshot 2013-12-19 11.41.46I am amazed to tell you that 100% of the students put their answers in these boxes on both the midterm and final exams this term. I estimate that this cut my marking time in half.  It also helped the students to make sure that they actually did all parts of the question, especially when comments were expected.

Of course, exams are not always all about problem solving.  We usually need to test basic knowledge and theory, as well, and this is much harder to streamline.  I used to think that TRUE and FALSE or multiple choice type questions just didn’t apply in engineering.  I was totally naïve on that – this fall I spent time developing both types of questions to test theory, and it actually worked pretty well.  It took a fair bit of effort to design effective questions, but in the end I saved tons of time by not having to mark essay-type answers.

I am probably embarrassing myself here – many of you probably figured these things out for yourselves already and didn’t take 20 years of iterating to do it.  For those of you who, like me, continue to be bewildered/discouraged/frustrated by the cryptic hieroglyphics offered up by the average university student on most exams – I hope you found a tidbit or two in here to help you out.  If you have some suggestions or feedback to offer – why not use the comment feature below to share them?

Thanks for visiting my blog!


One thought on “An Update on Streamlining Exam Marking

  1. Pingback: Tips for Setting Effective Exams | Help for New Professors

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