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Exams: it is not just the students who get stressed out


8:45 a.m. Fifteen minutes until go time. More than 1,100 exams and score sheets are neatly stacked and patiently waiting in 10 different classrooms to be distributed by an army of proctors. Large swarms of second-year genetics students anxiously migrate to their assigned rooms across campus. I can feel the sweat trickling down my back and chest. I’m too nervous to drink the cup of coffee that is shaking in my hands. If the students standing behind me didn’t know better, they’d think I was getting ready to write this exam. But I’m not. I, along with my co-instructor, Susanne, prepared it. Susanne is at the opposite end of campus standing outside a large lecture hall. We’ve been texting frantically. “All good on your end?” I ask. “So far …” she writes back, including a fingers-crossed emoji.

8:50 a.m. The classroom doors open and the students march in. Some are moving quickly: they likely have a particular spot where they want to sit, close to a window or clock, perhaps. Others are more reluctant to take a seat, knowing that the stakes are high, that the next three hours could help or hinder their chances of getting into medical school. A few of the students acknowledge me on the way into the room.

“What’s up, Professor Smith?”


“Hi Sir, please tell me that the questions aren’t too difficult.”


“Good morning, man. I think I might fail this.”

But most just walk past me with sad, accusing eyes, eyes that say, “Why are you doing this to us? Can’t you just give us all a good mark?” I worry that the students might think that I’m enjoying this, that I’m taking pleasure in putting them through the wringer, that I’m savouring the massive multiple-choice exam that awaits them. If only they knew that I’m as stressed out and worried as they are.

8:58 a.m. Text messages are coming in fast. Shit. We’re one exam short in another room. Susanne is on it. Double shit! Two students in a third room have forgotten their student cards, even after our countless email reminders the week before. Not to worry: we’ll take photos of the students and double-check their identity on Monday. Oh no. A student is throwing up in the bathroom outside a fourth room. OK. Record the student’s name, send her home, and she can write the make-up exam.

9:00 a.m. You may now open your exam booklets and begin.

9:01 a.m. There is always a quiet before the storm with big exams, a 20 to 30 minute silence before you find out if there is something catastrophically wrong with the questions, content or organization of the test. Stories of exam blunders abound and some have become legendary among my colleagues – like the time the exam had all of the correct answers bolded or the professor who accidentally left out the last two pages of questions. This is why Susanne and I have vetted the questions and proofread them again and again. But as we know from experience, even after careful scrutiny, exams are rarely perfect.

9:05–9:30 a.m. I make my way from building to building, room to room. I see hundreds of heads hunched over desks. I get the thumbs up from proctors, meaning that everything is running smoothly. “Thank goodness,” I tell myself. “Only two and half more hours to go.” Then I get a text from Susanne. “Looks like there is a problem with question 19. Answers A and C are identical.” Damn it. That’s one of my questions. How did I miss this?

9:45 a.m. Now I’m texting Susanne. “I think you did the math wrong on question 38.” “Alright,” she replies, “get the proctors to write a note on the board letting the students know that 38 is a gimme.”

10:15 a.m. Susanne and I cross paths as we each make our way across campus. Like two comrades in arms, we exchange stories from the trenches. “I don’t know why,” she says, “but no one can understand question 36.” “Tell me about it,” I say. “And the students in one room kept asking me about question 24. They don’t understand the figure.” We quickly part ways proclaiming that we’ll both need a lot of hard liquor to undue the damage done by this morning.

10:30–10:45 a.m. The final half of the exam is usually the most trying for both the students and the professors. In each of the exam rooms I’m bombarded with questions that for the most part I cannot answer:

“Sir, what exactly do you mean by …”
“I mean exactly that.”


“Sir, I don’t think there is a correct answer to this question.”
“I can assure you that there is.”


“Sir, I’ve narrowed it down to C or D.”

Asking questions is addictive and as the clock ticks on hands are popping up everywhere. I need to get out of here. I need to get some fresh air, some food, and some peace and quiet. I then remind myself that the students are feeling the exact same way.

12:00 p.m. Please put down your pencils and stop writing.

12:05 p.m. There is a chaotic mixture of emotions in the hallways outside the exam rooms. I discreetly stand among the students and listen to their conversations. They are debating their answers, picking apart each question. One student wants to high-five me, whereas another wants to have a heated chat about the exam content. A young man exclaims that he’s going to the campus pub to celebrate. A young woman sits on the floor and quietly talks on her phone as tears run down her face.

12:15 p.m. Susanne and I are in a classroom helping the proctors alphabetically sort exams and answer sheets. On the front page of the exam booklet there is a small section for comments. We will read through these carefully in the coming days. But for now I just skim over them. Some are constructive, pointing out genuine flaws with the exam. Others are cruel:

“Learn how to spell.”


“Worst exam ever!!!”


“Thanks for ruining my dreams.”

And some are funny:

“This is the first time in my life when thinking induced a headache and made me nauseous.”


“Looking forward to taking your course again next year.”

1:00 p.m. Before parting, Susanne and I share in the knowledge that we’ve survived yet another round. I make a promise that when I get home I’m not going to check my email. The dozens of letters from students can wait until Monday morning, when we’ve all partially recovered from the ordeal.

 David Smith is an assistant professor in the biology department at the University of Western Ontario. Find him online at and @arrogantgenome.

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  1. Somayeh / January 6, 2017 at 11:58

    I liked your story David!

  2. kumar / May 1, 2017 at 05:36

    Why ALL multiple choice?!

    Multiple choice is 50% the subject and 50% non-subject related i.e. attention and focus, a particular mindset of a multi-tasker, a street-smart boogie who may have had 65% in high school (of course later on, boosted it in one of numerous GPA producing schools in order to get to Western, and the rest is his street-smartness).
    In other words, multiple choice is useless in assessing students. It does NOT measure accurately how one is capable in a particular subject. Roughly 70% of student population may have a prolonged focus with multi-tasking wired brain that is necessary condition for multiple choice. Thus, many subject capable students who are not prolonged-focus multi-taskers will fail the course altogether. And many students that are worse than them IN THE SUBJECT ALONE, will pass. Thanks to their street-smartness, they somehow found their way to Western with subpar GPA, and certainly they find their way around multiple-choice. Yes, two thirds of those 70% are capable in the subject as well as street-smartness, but the remaining third I am not so sure.

    Better student-oriented universities (the other ones like Western are professor-oriented, multiple choice helping professors and not students) do have 50/50 approach: 50% or so multiple choice and 50% short or long answers. Now that is one fair approach, I say. That student that cried, she didn’t cry because she did not master the subject. After all, studying at a university is not a cheap endeavor and MAJORITY of students do use every free minute of the day studying, studying, and studying. On the contrary, she cried because she MASTERED the subject yet she failed. Prolonged focus multi-tasking was an obstacle she could not overcome NO MATTER how many study weeks, months, or even years are put into a single subject!

    • Dr. Andreas Tomaszewski / January 31, 2018 at 20:29

      I find that the article describes exactly as it is and I don’t even have as many students – even if I teach three sections of the same course, my max would not reach 1/10 of what David is talking about.
      @kumar: The problem lies in the number of sections and students in them; 1,100 students writing in 10 classrooms! Apparently, two professors teaching at least one section each. Hence, mentioning of the proctors. Even if you have teaching assistants, you can’t mark that term papers or exams with several short answer questions in the time required to get final marks in. But: it’s great revenue generation for universities when they have several hundred students in one section and only need to pay one prof. My undergrad courses have a cap of less than 40 and I have no TAs. With three sections per term and generally final exams in all of them, multiple choice exams often can’t be avoided. Students need to get a final grade somehow, even if the system requires the disregarding of assessment validity.

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