Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rubbish Collections

No, this is not a post about how complicated the recycling rules are here. This is a post about collections, the exams students take at the beginning of each term to make sure they learned everything the were supposed to learn in the previous term and to make sure that they have been studying over the break. So why do I title this post "Rubbish Collections" ? Because for many of the students, the collections they handed in were complete garbage or, as they say here "total rubbish" -- many students did not study over the break or prepare for the collections in any way whatsoever. Why not? Because they know that collections don't actually count. Since the only exams that count are given at the very end of the year, they can procrastinate doing any actual work until the very last minute... and some of them do.

To be honest, as a matter of principle, I'm all for procrastinating. In my one-day-to-be-written-book "The 9 habits of highly successful theoretical physicists", the first habit is "procrastinate like crazy". Many, if not most, of the successful theoretical physicists I know really do procrastinate. Why..? So they can free up time to think deeply about whatever topic they are working on. They procrastinate all the little stupid things that have to get done so they can focus on the really interesting stuff.

As for my students.. I had hoped that "the really interesting stuff" that they want to learn is physics. It seems that a few of the really motivated students really did put a lot of work in over the break trying to learn. But most did not. Some of them might actually be smart enough to be able to cram everything into their heads just before the final exam... but others... well, they are just asking for trouble.

(Yes, students are adults and if they want to screw up their education they have every right to do so. But it is painful to watch.)

In most American universities the final grade is some weighted average of quizzes, homeworks, and the final exam. Even if the final exam counts for most of the final grade, the fear of losing points in the final grade by bombing a quiz is usually enough to force students to study throughout the course. Right now it seems to me that there is a lot of merit to that idea.

While things around here can only be changed on geological time scales, winds have been blowing slowly in that direction of the American system. Not too long ago, the only exam that counted for a student was at the very end of their college career (talk about pressure!). Now they have exams that count once a year instead. Maybe in the future they will have exams that count once a term. In the meantime, I'm trying to think of some way to save the students from themselves.


L said...

so what are the other eight habits?

Steve said...

You will have to buy the book to find out... or keep reading my blog. I'm sure I'll get around to talking about the other ones.