February 8 Day 702: Oral Midterms Again

It’s midterm time and that means a day administering oral interviews. It’s a small class (only 16 students) and I scheduled them all for one day. Today. They started at 9 am and ended at 7 pm.

The process hasn’t changed. The questions are variations on previous themes. It really shouldn’t have seemed much different from other times I have given oral assessments. And yet…

This quarter seems so different. Switching modalities —first online and then in person—means the class hasn’t yet settled in into a predictable pattern. In-person attendance barely breaks 50% and we have just started working at the whiteboard together in class.

For this assessment, the class was bimodal. Either the students were prepared and got through the material smoothly or they struggle from the very start.

What was good? Students were definitely studying together and helping each other. This was evident in the similarity of the student-prepared T/F questions and a frequent but unusual choice for the starting problem. (I give the students 6 questions ahead of time. They present two during the interview. The first is their choice and the second is mine.)

What was bad? Several students knew the answers or at least parroted the answers but couldn’t explain the underlying concepts. Too many students arrived unprepared but hoping for a miracle.

Where there tears? Yes, for the first time in two years of giving oral assessments. And there were several sources.

This brings me to a new way in which oral assessments are beneficial. What happens when an unprepared student meets a pencil-and-paper exam? Many questions are left blank. Other answers are unintelligible. The score is discouraging. And when the exam gets returned, it finds its way into a rubbish bin at the earliest opportunity, never to be learned from or followed up on— even though it bears the request “Please come and talk with me.” In this situation during an oral interview, much of the thirty minute appointment was spent talking about study habits and productive changes. We have the “Please come and talk with me”-talk in the moment so it actually happens. I am keeping my fingers crossed that it has a positive impact on the rest of the course.

So what has changed? I believe that extended remote learning is taking a huge toll. Could it be that students watch others on the screen (whether in class or YouTube video), and think that because they “see” it, they understand it? They mimic solutions (from those videos) to obtain answers and the process only stays in short term memory. They know it for 10 minutes and because it seemed “easy” they think they understand it.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, other students fully tackled everything. One came to drop-in hours several days before the test, practiced their answers, and got hints for vexing problems. During the interview, they wanted to show-off what they had figured out rather than rehashing what they already knew was correct.

After another long day administering oral assessment interviews, I am still a fan. And I again had students select a mathematical affirmation (see August 20 Day 530: Affirmations in Focus) as a positive way to start each interview.

Published by Jenny Quinn

Mathematician. Mother. Wife. Leader. I am a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington Tacoma. Mother of Anson and Zachary. Wife to Mark. President of the Mathematical Association of America.

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