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 Fall 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 will fully realize their potential, particularly under the kinds of pressures associated with a timed examination that requires you to think on your feet rather than regurgitate information. 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 illness, test anxiety or other factors 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 (please contact me if you feel this applies to you). 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, you all 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 to your final grade.

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, after all. 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 the number at the top of the page and never think about the exam again. I think this is an understandable but short-sighted response to being tested. Let me suggest a different 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 now 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 the requirements 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 literally 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).

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.

Grade Distribution and General Comments

There are two ways of thinking about your grade on this exam: 1) consider your point total as a percentage of the total points available on the exam (104); or 2) translate your point total into a letter grade.

The latter way of looking at your grade is in relation to how the rest of the class did. Your number grade translates to a letter grade as follows: 95-104=A+, 92-94.99=A, 88-91.99=A-, 84-87.99=B+, 80-83.99=B, 76-79.99=B-, 72-75.99=C+, 68-71.99=C, 64-67.99=C-, and 60-63.99=D+. There were 4 A+s, 2 As, 12 A-s, 17 B+s, 16 Bs, 6 B-s, 3 C+s, and 1 D+. This letter bump will no doubt be good for your averages and confidence--and hopefully will reduce grade anxiety--but my point in doing this is for you to look at your actual numbers and percentages honestly and think carefully about what you need to do to develop your reading habits and interpretive skills further in the second half of the course.

That's where the first way of looking at your grade comes in. Going by percentage gives you a fairly objective measure of where you most need to improve. For instance, 21 points on Part I may seem like a straight B+ by percentage (21/24) when in actuality it is a C (since there were actually 28 possible points). To take another example, if you scored more points in Part I than in Part III, something is probably wrong. So look hard at where you gained and lost points on the exam. In terms of percentages, the top grade in the class translated into roughly 93%, and the class average was hovering near 80%. For a group taking a general education course, many of whom will not go on to become English majors, this is a pretty good performance. But no matter how well you did, there is still loads of room for improvement.

If I were to give an exam like this at the end of the course, I would expect to see improvement in all aspects of the exam, but particularly in Parts II and III. Just about everyone in the class is able to come up with some pretty good observations about literary texts and to answer a question about a literary text, but far too many people appear to be satisfied to come up with any observation or answer and hence give up far too soon on the project of pushing their observations and answers further. I was, frankly, appalled at the number of people who addressed some other topic on Part III than what the option they chose to write on actually required them to address. People seemed to be inventing their own essay topics that were only tangentially related to what the option was actually about. Given that the rest of your essays (the rewrite of CRE #1, then CRE #2 and the final essay) are such an important part of your final course grade, anything lower than a 25 on Part III of the exam should be a warning to you to read future assignments more carefully and begin your essays earlier.

Specific comments on each part of the exam follow.

Part I

There were 28 possible points on this section (3 people got all of 'em), so comparing the number of points you received against this perfect score (rather than against the official 24 point total) will give you a good sense of how little or far you have to go for perfection on passage IDs. I'll be taking such things as your total score on this section, the amount of extra credit you received, and where you lost points as one measure of your preparation in the course (as the syllabus says, your participation/preparation grade is worth 15% of your final course grade). I think it's fair to assume that anyone who scored 24 or better has been doing all the reading (34 people accomplished this, and 21 of them got 26 points or better). There were also several people who identified all the passages correctly, but because of spelling errors or a failure to check the relevant web page before-hand (and thus realize that full names were needed for authors), scored below 24 points. Another measure of how much reading people have been doing is how many extra credit points they earned; 25 people got 3 or more extra credit points. So be aware that I'm treating your actual performance on the exam (not just the numbers) as relevant to your level of preparation in this course. If you feel that you have been preparing much harder than your scores would indicate, please be sure to let me know.

Part II

Many people who got off to a great start in Part I lost ground in Part II. If you were one of these people, you should ask yourself what happened, and consider what you've been doing during and after reading. Clearly, you couldn't do well on Part I without doing the reading, but by the same token you can't do well on Part II without thinking as and after you read about the meaning and significance of what you just read, and how it relates to other works you've read, both in this course and in others. Now, even if you've been both reading and thinking throughout the course, it's still possible to lose points on Part II through haziness about just what a close reading (or comparison-contrast, or part-whole analysis) should be or do, or a lack of practice in actually writing out before the exam these kinds of short essays. The point of this section was not to regurgitate whatever we had said about a given passage in class, but to interpret the actual language of the passage itself as extensively as possible within the time limits. If you got anything less than a 13.5 on any of the skills in this part of the exam, you should consult the following checklist, and focus on improvement in that skill over the rest of the semester (in fact, seeing as how people earned only 8 14.5s and 17 14s out of 183 short essays [4% and 9% of the total], everyone has much room for improvement).

Demonstrating competence in these three interpretive skills (12/15 or better) is one thing; demonstrating excellence in them (14/15 or above) is another. I hope that many of you will set the latter as your goal in the remainder of the course. 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 that result 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

One clear indication that most everyone's close reading skills need further development is the tendency already noted above to misunderstand the take-home essay options in Part III. In fact, the chief things that held people back on the take-home essay were misunderstanding the assignment and not thinking through what an adequate answer to the question would have to do. The same problems that held back Part II scores--most notably, the willingness to settle for vague, general observations, arguments, and interpretations--reared their ugly heads on Part III, as well. That only 9 out of 61 people scored 27 (B+) or higher is consistent with your grades on the first drafts of your critical response essays, but nevertheless disappointing. As I said before, this indicates that everyone needs to be putting more time and thought into their writing process.

Looking Ahead

In this first half of this 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, implicit, coded, or ambiguous 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 now 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. (You can then compare where you feel you stand with your mid-term grade, which you can pick up from your advisor on Monday.) I hope that this page and my comments on your first critical response essay 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 1999
Created: 10/15/99, 8:12 pm
Last modified: 10/15/99, 8:47 pm