Exam Season Has Begun

Classes have now ended for the Fall term at the University of Waterloo.  Students are currently preparing for their final exams.  For some students, this means finally getting a day of rest to prepare for long hours of studying and exam writing.  For other students, the studying process has already begun.  For our first year students, this is a scary time of the year.  Most of our first year students have never written a final exam in university.  The study areas on campus are busy with students reviewing lecture materials and old exams in hopes of learning all the things that they didn’t have time to learn throughout the term.

The co-op program that is a required part of Waterloo Engineering has pros and cons.  The program is known for training highly qualified engineers.  Students get real-world experience working on engineering problems that matter.  The lessons taught by real-world experience are often superior to those taught in a classroom setting.  Employers have access to state-of-the-art tools and equipment that universities sometimes lack.  For example, our co-op students working at Apple are working on products that will come to market in the next two years using internal tools that are likely better than those available on any university campus.  No university, regardless of budget, can compete on an equal playing field with private sector research and development.

However, one of the downsides of the co-op program is the substantial investment of time that students must make during their academic terms to secure great co-op placements.  Writing résumés and cover letters is time-consuming.  While we have a great system in place to help students find a job, it sometimes requires a fair amount of work on the part of a student during an academic term.  This coupled with employment trends where companies require applicants to complete assignments and tests prior to an interview can really make studying during the term a difficult proposition.  At this time of the year, I often recommend to students still looking for a co-op placement that they put the job search on a temporary hold.

For our students, it is now time to focus on studying for exams.

Like students, academic terms are busy for most faculty members.  My last few days have been spent catching up on things that had to be postponed until classes ended.  Writing a final exam for my course was at the top of my to-do list.  I can happily say that my exam has been submitted for printing.

Students and parents might be surprised to learn how long it takes faculty members to write a good exam.  I usually budget about 30 hours for final exam writing.  Sometimes, it takes more than 30 hours to typeset an exam.  It depends upon the complexity of the exam and the number of figures and tables required.  It is a bit like writing a chapter of a textbook or writing a journal paper.  The task requires great attention to detail and a fair amount of hard work.  I try to anticipate how students will interpret my questions and I try to figure out how the questions can be graded fairly and efficiently.  My final exams tend to be somewhere between 20 pages and 24 pages long.  For a brief glimpse into the end product, you can see an image of the front page of my final exam for my course this term.


There are no spoilers in this image as I provide the front page to all of my students through our online learning system.  The front page provides students with an idea of what they can expect during their final exam.  While it doesn’t really say much, students like knowing the mark breakdown.  During the last class of the term, I also provide titles for each exam question.  As an example, Question 1 on this final exam is a question on Serial Interfacing.

Contrary to what happens in the movies, my final exams do not reuse questions verbatim from previous years.  While individual questions may be similar to old questions in structure, I always change the question wording and the numeric values to provide a new take on old questions.  A slight change in wording can substantially change the meaning of some questions.  I also strive to introduce several new questions on every exam that I write.  This can be a challenge when you have taught a variation of the same course for 15+ years.  This being said, I love the course that I teach and I am happy to face this challenge at the end of an academic term.

Students and parents might also be surprised to learn that most faculty members, including myself, do not want to fail students.  I prefer students passing my final exams.  Passing is a sign that students have learned something that I feel is important.  When students fail my exams, I always wonder if there is something I could have done better to help motivate the student to learn the material.  There might have been a better way to explain a particular concept to my students.  A few more examples might have helped.  Given more class time, things could always have been better.

At the end of the academic term, we do have course evaluations that are conducted to provide feedback to instructors.  This information is incredibly valuable to instructors in some cases.  Using feedback provided by students, I have found ways to improve my course notes that I might not otherwise have figured out.  While there are still improvements to be made, my course notes are much better than the ones I used 15 years ago.  The only students (sadly) who get to see the improvements are those who repeat my course.  This term, I hope none of my students get to see the next version of my course notes.

Good luck to all of our engineering students on their final exams!