M A I N * N E W S * T O P I C S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S

The Spring 1999 Mid-Term Exam: Comments

I want to offer a few comments on patterns I noticed in your answers on the mid-term examination. Let me begin by saying that I understand that in a test situation, very few people are capable of doing their absolute best, particularly under the kinds of pressures associated with a timed examination that requires you to perform several kinds of intellectual activities. Thus, I am not taking your performance on the test as any kind of measure of your "general intelligence" (whatever that phrase means), of your potential to do well in the course, or even of how much work you've been putting into the course thus far. In fact, if I have reason to believe that test anxiety or bad time management significantly affected your performance on the exam, I will give you an opportunity to redo parts of the test or even take a new version of it. What I was most interested in, to tell you the truth, was for you to go through the experience of preparing for and taking the exam. Exams have a funny way of getting students' attention--for some reason, they tend to take them more seriously than papers, even when, as in this course, the kinds of writing you do in the course outside the exam count over three times more than the exam itself.

Now, I care about the exam for reasons other than this utilitarian (sadistic?) one. The test is worth 20% of your base grade in this course, for instance. But even that is not as final as it may appear. Your final grade will have to be translated from the numerical base grade to a letter final grade; in the process, I will be taking into account such things as improvement over the course of the semester, intellectual development, and overall work ethic. What this means, then, is that how you do in this course is largely dependent on what you take from the experience of taking this test.

Let me explain.

You are well within your rights to look at your grade and never think about the exam again. I think this is an understandable but short-sighted response to being tested. Let me suggest another response. If you think carefully about which instructions were clear to you and which were unclear, which parts of the test were easy and which were hard, and which interpretive skills you feel confident about your competence on and which you don't, then you will have learned something significant from taking the mid-term exam. If you think carefully about what kinds of intellectual skills and mental habits the test is designed to inculcate in you and what the test reveals about your professor's emphases and priorities, then you will have learned something significant from taking the mid-term exam. If you read over your answers to the test in order to consider what kinds of things you did under pressure, how you would prepare differently for such a test in the future, and what you would do differently in the test situation if you had it to do over, then you will have learned something significant from taking the mid-term exam.

The kinds of lessons you draw from your experience of taking the mid-term exam--which could range from the importance of asking questions rather than guessing when you are unsure of an assignment to the necessity of keeping up with the readings to the usefulness of taking notes in class to the benefits of becoming a more active reader to a million other things--will have a serious impact on your rewrite of the first critical response essay and your approach to the other critical response essays and the final paper (which combined account for 50% of your base grade in the course). Your performance on the mid-term exam might also re-emphasize to you the importance of doing well on the other 30% of your grade (most notably reading responses and reading groups).

So if you did well on the test, congratulations. If you didn't do as well as you wanted, consider what it would take to do better. And if you surprised yourself by doing better on the test than you expected, congratulations, ratchet that self esteem up a notch or two, and figure out what it was that you actually did and how to do it even better in the future.

Specific comments on each part of the exam follow.

Part I

As you've no doubt seen, I took points off when you misspelled an author or title, and even for such small details as forgetting articles like "A" or "The." I did so to emphasize the importance of precision and accuracy. Twenty years from now, it won't matter so much if you can remember if it was Joyce Carol Oates or Nathaniel Hawthorne who wrote "Alice Doane's Appeal," but it will matter if you are precise and accurate when you do whatever work you'll be doing. In the much shorter term, you're someday soon going to be writing letters of application and resumes, and there's nothing like careless editing to get your document sent to the circular file.

The maximum score you could have gotten on this section was 26.5 out of 20 (that's identifying every passage correctly [+5], plus giving the correct chapter titles on the three passages from Kingston [+1.5]). The top score earned was 25.8. 30 out of 64 people (46.9%) got 20 points or more, which is quite a bit fewer than I expected. Last semester, 43 out of 54 students (79.6%) got better than the base score (15 points in this case); admittedly, I didn't make them identify as many passages, I wasn't taking off for misspellings, and I valued correct extra-credit answers slightly higher then, which could account for some of the difference.

However, I did expect most of you to build up a cushion during Part I, so that some of the practically inevitable falls that would come during Parts II and III would hurt you less. It's worth thinking about why this cushion materialized or failed to materialize for you on Part I.

To take just one telling example, far too many people confused the passages from The Turn of the Screw and "Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly," which to me was a sign of one major problem: not enough or not strategic enough studying. The first thing you should have thought of when preparing for Part I was: which texts am I most likely to confuse? Top on the list should have been the James and the Oates (for obvious reasons; second would probably be James and Hawthorne, since they both have complicated sentence structures and present serious comprehension difficulties). Now, even if you never cracked either text but only took decent notes during class and referred back to them while studying, you would have been able to generate several criteria for distinguishing the two texts. When you consider that The Turn of the Screw was the second-longest text we read before the exam, which should suggest that anywhere from two to four passages could potentially come from it, knowing how to tell the difference between James's style and Oates's should have been of vital importance to you.

This leads to a larger point that should become part of your general study habits. Starting from the question "where am I likely to lose points?" has several other benefits: answering it tells you what to emphasize when studying, it allows you both to make plans to avoid major disasters and to get as close to perfection as possible, it gets you really thinking about what the exam is testing, and it helps you study more efficiently, thereby saving you time. Starting from this question, finally, helps you treat the test less as an arbitrary hoop you have to jump through and more as an exercise in determining what the professor sees as the central knowledges, skills, and methods of the course and in figuring out what criteria will be used to judge your performance on it. Now, asking yourself this question is no substitute for asking your professors questions--and you should always ask any question you have about the expectations for the course--but it is a way to figure out what is clear about those expectations and what is unclear, and thereby ask better, more precise questions.

Part II

The mini-essays in Part II showed a wide range of 1) understanding of what "demonstrating competence" in a particular interpretive skill entails, and 2) ability to translate/apply that general understanding to a reading of a particular passage. This is unfortunate, as the web pages describing the exam and showing a copy of last year's exam were up since the first day of the semester. There was plenty of time to prepare for this part of the exam, even before we began discussing the exam explicitly.

Most people learn by doing, which is why I suggested that a smart way of preparing for this portion of the exam would be to write many mini-essays on passages you felt were important in various texts. That way you would learn by trial and error what makes a good close reading or what distinguishes an ok from a great part-whole analysis, or just what it takes to do a comparison-contrast. From the look of things, many people chose to make their first major trial the test itself, when errors counted the most.

To make sure that you learn from your mistakes, read over your mini-essays and ask yourself the following questions:

Demonstrating competence in these three interpretive skills (12/15 or under) is one thing; demonstrating excellence in them (14/15 or above) is another. I hope that many of you will set as your goal in the remainder of the course the latter. These are skills that you will use whenever you read any kind of text--literary or otherwise--and particularly when you have to write papers. These skills are generalizable from the study of narrative fiction to the study of almost any kind of writing (including poetry, drama, and essays) and, with some tinkering, even things that have little to do with writing (from music to art to film). They will be of use to you in courses ranging from history to philosophy to communications, and many more besides. In short, there are huge long-term benefits from figuring out how to do these different kinds of interpretive activity and practicing them so that you keep improving on them. I hope that you use your reading responses as opportunities to practice developing these skills further. I will be looking for the appropriate use of these skills in developing and justifying your claims in the rest of your papers in the course, as well.

Part III

Grades were very low on this portion of the exam. The chief things that held people back were misunderstanding the question and not thinking through what an adequate answer to the question would have to do. Almost half the class wrote essays that were fine in almost every respect except that they had little to do with the actual question being asked. This is a serious error not only in reading comprehension, but also in following directions--skills that may seem simple and basic but apparently are not. Given that the options were up since the Wednesday evening in the week before the exam was given, there was plenty of time to read them, think about them, and ask me to clarify anything that was unclear about them.

The breakdown on this section was as follows: at last count, 28 people chose option #1, 24 chose option #3, 6 chose option #4, and 3 chose option #2. 10 people got 33 points (which is the rough equivalent of an A) or higher. 24 people got 30 points (which is the rough equivalent of a B) or lower.

Here are some more specific comments on each of the four questions:

Looking Ahead

In this first part of the course, I have tried to emphasize several habits of mind that I think are important not only to my course but also to college in general: 1) the importance of understanding and following directions (particularly on essay questions and exam instructions)--and of asking questions whenever you are confused in any way; 2) the importance of figuring out what you need to do in order to answer a given question and of figuring out what it would take to answer that question well--and of asking questions whenever you are not sure if you have figured these things out; 3) the importance of reading carefully, closely, and actively--not just for comprehension but also for the more subtle or implicit aspects of a given passage, story, or book; 4) the importance of being able to explain and justify your points (particularly in your writing)--of figuring out the best way to persuade a given audience to agree with your argument in a given situation (whether in class or at a podium or on paper); 5) the importance of becoming more aware of your own assumptions about reading and writing and of the process you go through to make sense of, appreciate, analyze, and respond to literary and other texts--so that you may consciously try to develop those reading skills that matter most to you; and 6) the importance of independent thinking--not only in terms of thinking about things related to the course outside as well as inside the classroom, but also in terms of considering others' points of view as a key step in the process of generating and revising your own ideas about the texts we're reading and the issues we're considering in the course.

I will continue to emphasize all these habits of mind during the rest of the semester, but I will put even greater emphasis on the last four. As important as figuring out and living up to others' expectations are (particularly when those others have some power or authority over you!), what is even more important is figuring out what are your own priorities and self-expectations. In future critical response essays, for instance, I will be asking you to generate your own questions to try to answer persuasively; you will thus be graded on the quality of your question, the approach you took to answering it, and your justification of that answer. Because the emphasis of the course will be shifting in this way, taking the time before spring break to evaluate how you think you are doing in the course thus far and to figure out ways of doing better will be time well spent. I hope that this page and my comments on your first critical response essay both convince you to do these things and are useful to you as you do them. Please feel free to schedule an appointment in my office to discuss any aspect of the course.

M A I N * N E W S * T O P I C S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S

EN 209: Novels and Tales, Fall 1998
Created: 3/11/99, 8:54 pm
Last modified: 3/11/99, 8:54 pm