On Campus

5 ways your prof knows you're failing

An experienced eye can tell when a student is in trouble

Photo by rileyroxx on Flickr

I didn’t set out to make a study of student exam-room behaviour, but by my estimation, I’ve invigilated well over a hundred exams in my career and, after a while, you start to notice things.

One thing I realized lately is that I’ve been getting good at telling who’s failing the exam even as they’re writing it. I don’t use this as a basis for evaluation, of course, but, as I say, you can’t help developing a sense.

Even at my most curmudgeonly, I hate to see a student’s exam turn into a complete disaster, but, sadly, some student efforts just fall to pieces in the exam room. A few may go gentle into that good night, but most have observable characteristics. Here are my five signs that the train is going off the rails:

1. The half-time bailout. One truth about exams is that no matter how shameless a student might have been about ditching class or skipping assignments, no one wants to leave an exam after only a few minutes. That makes it obvious that you didn’t write anything which makes it obvious that you didn’t know anything. Not even enough to BS for a couple of pages. Such students, I have found, typically wait until about the half-way mark of the exam period. That way, there’s a chance their early exit might be interpreted as them being so brilliant, they finished in half the allotted time. They probably weren’t.

2.The sideways stare. Even an unprepared student can think of one or two things to write by way of answering an exam question, but after a few minutes, that shallow well runs dry and the poor candidate starts staring at the wall, perhaps hoping some miraculous hand will write answers there. A student looking up may be working out a difficult idea. A student staring straight ahead is inscrutable. A student staring at the wall is usually cooked.

3. The head shake. I see this among first-years sometimes, especially those who I haven’t seen much in class. This is the look that says, “Man, this is not what I expected.” I’m always curious as to what they did expect, or, in some cases, how they had any expectations at all, given that they never came to class.

4. The glare. Occasionally I’ll notice a student frequently looking up at me from their work with a hint of anger in their eyes. If they were communicating with me by text message, the text would read WTF? In its worst form, the glare is not one of frustrated confusion but of indignant betrayal:  “How could you, Dr Pettigrew? Have you no sense of decency? At long last?”

5. The breakdown. The most disastrous and, thankfully, the rarest of the exam flame-outs is the teary meltdown. I always feel particularly bad about these ones —  not just because the  student has obviously been overwhelmed by the most stressful part of a stressful time of life, but also because the crying itself is likely causing the student even more embarrassment.

If you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions, you might rethink your exam prep strategy. Most exam takers in distress got that way because they didn’t work at the material throughout the term, or didn’t study. Do yourself a favour and know the material so well that your only problem is getting all down in three hours.

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