Note #11 US Diaries 2017 

Note #11: How to write an exam? Can students set a question paper for students?
Today, I took a test after a long time. Last time I took one was on Sanskrit three years ago when I had put in a lot of time to study. Same was the case this time. I learned a few new things while writing the exam, which I thought I will share.
Back in college, I had a different ‘skill set’ of writing the exam which I don’t intend to share in detail right now. If you are thinking that it was ‘copying’, then you are wrong. It was mainly understanding the question pattern, going through frequently asked questions and all those boring stuff which most students do today too. But today’s experience was different. Let me start with the question paper. 
The paper for us was set by the students in the advanced group of PACT (Program for Algorithmic and Combinatorial Thinking, three of them were my own students. Today, I had the privilege of taking an exam that was set by my own students along with other students. I don’t know how many teachers would be this fortunate 😉
The course faculty had told them to set the question paper in such a way that there should be challenging questions so that scoring 100% would be very very difficult. At the same time, there needs to be questions which will motivate the students and feel them confident that they could solve atleast a few questions. The paper was one of the best ones I have seen till date. It covered almost all the topics that was taught in two weeks in the PACT course. Three very good things about this exam were:

1. There were no grades. Just right/wrong with comments from the moderators (moderators are senior batch students).

2. The exam was optional. We were free to take or skip the exam. But all 78 students took the exam even though it was completely fine with our faculty that anyone might wish to skip the exam (He created a willingness to take the exam and no one felt that it was enforced upon them).

3. No time limit. One could take as much time as one needed to finish the exam. This is very much in contrast with most examinations that we take in India where someone who gives the answer fast is considered superior to others. Most challenging problems (both in life and in Math), demands a lot of time to think over it. It tests our patience, persistence and problem-solving skill. Since the questions were mostly new (created by the students), it is a paper that can also be given to be taken at home if required. I was the last one to get out of the class as I spent around 4 hours on 13 questions. Still I couldn’t complete 2 questions.
There were no Multiple Choice Questions (which was obviously the best part) and most answers were to be justified. Many problems involved counting so we had to do lot of calculations and arrive at the answer. The issue with such problems is that sometimes more than one solution seem to be true. In the interest of time, I just wrote down the final answer for those questions and moved on to the next ones leaving the explanation to be given at the end. I could go through all the problems comfortably mainly because of the above two reasons:- No grades. No time limit. And hence, no competition and stress-free exam.
After answering a reasonable number of questions, I went through those which I couldn’t solve at the first go. And bingo! I could do it instantly. Why did this happen? Many a times when we are trying to solve a problem, we think from one direction and our mind is so convinced that we are thinking in the right direction that it doesn’t want to think critically or think from a different standpoint. But when you give it a break and work on something else and then come back to the same problem, your mind might take a different route to solve the problem.
Another good thing that I did was to leave the explanation part to the end. This is very good for problems on Counting where every answer seem to be correct. When I looked at the problem later on (while I was about to explain), I found that I had made some error in thinking earlier and couple of my answers were missing out some cases which had to be considered. Had I not skipped the explanation part earlier, my mind (that was convinced that my answer is correct) would have tried to give a justification/reasoning for whatever answer I got. This, I feel, is a very good thing while we analyse things too. When we are already convinced by an idea/thought, we cannot actually see if the idea/thought is truly correct.
After some great learning from taking the exam, I was thinking about the exposure to the exam setters (the senior batch students). They got a chance to understand ‘how to set a question paper’, ‘how to empathise on junior students’ (a good point that Hariharan brought to my notice), ‘how to discuss and come up with different set of problems of different difficulty levels, how to supervise the exam, how to evaluate and finally, how to prepare a good test which will not demoralise the students, which will help us identify the best of students (unlike today when we have a big lot scoring centum in boards), which areas are important to focus for testing, and so on.
Just from an exam I could see so many benefits. Imagine, how much the students would be gaining from the course!



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