Saturday, April 25, 2009

Long Exams

I was recently struck by the idea of writing an exam that was purposefully too long. Basically, the instructor just writes down whatever problems they come up with, related to the subject at hand, and give the complete list of questions to the students. Tell the students they aren't expected to get through everything, that they should look through the list and attack problems they know how to do. And if students finish all the problems they know how to do before time is up, they just keep trying as many problems as possibly. Students have whatever fixed amount of time to get through as many problems as they possibly can.

I was wondering if anybody out there had tried this, or what people's thoughts were about this idea. It seems like setting up an exam this (kinda lazy) way, the instructor can easily see what topics students are comfortable with. I suppose this is possibly the case for more traditionally designed exams. Perhaps we should ask students to rate how confident they are about their answers on exams?

The first question about this method probably is about grading. I'd say each problem is assigned a point value, before being distributed to students. After the exam, the instructor grades whatever work students turn in, and this gives them a point distribution for the class. The highest grade gets an A (presumably), and then you work out what to do with lower grades, perhaps based on the distribution that arises. Perhaps you set a level of minimum points you're going to allow for a... C say, to make sure the students don't conspire to all just do one problem and all get the same grade?

To give credit where credit is due I should perhaps describe the circumstances that led me to the idea. There are 5 sections of the course I am teaching this semester (Calc 2), and we have coordinated exams. This means the 5 instructors all meet sometime before the exam, and write a common exam. The setup we have adopted this semester is to split up the sections that are on the exam, and have each instructor write questions from the sections they are assigned (and whatever other fun questions they want). Then when we meet we have 5 pages of questions, one from each instructor. We meet and decide which problems to keep, and then the exam gets written.

At this last meeting we had, Katherine, one of the other instructors, joked that we should just make copies of the sheets we were looking at, and hand the set to our students as their exam. Naturally, this was the inspiration for the idea asked about above.

So... thoughts? Anybody tried it?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Learning Group Name?

I recently ran across projecteuler.net, a collection of intriguing programming puzzles with a mathematical bent. Before long, I had decided that it would be fun to get a group of my fellow UVA math grad students together to work through these problems. I've wanted to learn python for a while now, and thought perhaps others might as well, and that using the problems from projecteuler.net would be fun. So I sent out an email and have gotten several others who would like to join me, which is pretty encouraging. We're going to start after the semester ends, which is just a few weeks away.

When I was thinking about the group initially, I thought perhaps we'd organize some meeting time and talk about our code. But then do we print out our code and pass it around? Write it on the chalkboard? Perhaps bring in thumb drives and a laptop and projector and present out code to each other? And then I thought maybe just putting all of the code up on a group-run blog would be the best idea. We don't have to worry about organizing meetings, people can look at anything on their own time, and, for what it's worth, our work would be out in the wild for anybody to see.

My question is... can you think of a clever name for such a blog (one that you'd happily let us use)? My first thought, something like "Let's Learn Python", or so, isn't hugely fun. I feel like there's potential using π instead of "py" in "python"...

Once we get going, you can expect to see a link.

Update 20090513: Here it is: Leonhard Euler's Flying Circus!