Some data (and advice) on exams…

This will sound a bit odd, but we have barely reached the middle of the semester. Obviously, I’m not referring to the calendar — the final exam is just over two weeks away — but if you count exam points, you might see what I’m driving at. So far there have been four short exams totaling 200 points. What remains are another short exam and the final exam totaling 250 points. So slightly over half of the ‘exam’ semester is still waiting.*

(*Actually way more than half for some students because of the Exam Rescue policy which allows the final exam score to also replace two short exam scores.)

This post discusses two important exam-related topics. First, it provides statistics on the scores for Exams 1-4. Second, it tells you how to assess your exam scores. Unfortunately, the section on exam assessment is fairly generic — I can’t discuss the scores of any individuals — so I urge everyone who has concerns and/or questions about their work in Chem 201 to come see me in person.

My door is open.

Statistics for Exams 1-4. For reasons that will become clear in the next section, I have divided exam scores into three categories: 80-100%, 60-80%, and below 60%. Here are results (#scores in each category) for the 64 students still enrolled in the class:

  • Exam 1 – 44 (80-100%), 17 (60-80%), 3 (below 60%)
  • Exam 2 – 40 (80-100%), 17 (60-80%), 7 (below 60%)
  • Exam 3 – 9 (80-100%), 25 (60-80%), 30 (below 60%)
  • Exam 4 – 14 (80-100%), 20 (60-80%), 30 (below 60%)

Exam 3 shows a sharp drop in the number of 80+% scores and an equally sharp increase in the number of 60-% scores. This sudden change is seen year after year and reflects at least three important developments. First, with Exam 3 the questions primarily focus on recently learned material; material that was covered in Chem 101/102 has slipped into the background. Second, by this point you have been given more to think about and more ways to connect things together so it is harder to construct answers unless one has practiced solving a lot of problems. Third, answers must now be constructed from information that you can remember. The difficulty of learning chemical information that can be recalled and applied is usually underestimated at first.

On the other hand, these scores also reveal a hopeful development. Exam scores improved from Exam 3 to Exam 4. Based on previous years, I expect this trend to continue into Exam 5 and the final exam. When it comes to the raw materials, every student in the class has what it takes to succeed.

How to read your exam scores. At the risk of drawing conclusions that are much too general, I think you can interpret your exam scores as follows:

  • Scores of 80-100% probably reflect a solid command of most of the material. I would like to say “all of the material,” but no exam is able to test every concept so I prefer to be cautious.
  • Scores of 60-80% probably demonstrate a satisfactory, if incomplete, grasp of the material. They probably also reflect satisfactory execution of a reasonably comprehensive study plan before the exam. That said, a score in this range indicates that there is (in most cases) substantial room for improvement.
  • Scores below 60% show deep cause for concern. The degree and type of concern will naturally vary from one student to the next, but every student in this range should be concerned about the study patterns that they have been relying on.

These descriptions and the results in the previous section indicate that nearly half of the students are currently producing work that is unsatisfactory and I have to wonder why. Are students relying on study habits that are inappropriate or incompatible with expectations? Or, perhaps the habits are well-conceived, but they are not being executed adequately? In my experience, both possibilities are likely. Moreover, both can be addressed given sufficient attention and patience.

Of course, I can only speak in generalities. There is a world of difference between an exam where 10 points (20%) were lost on a single problem and an exam where 2 points were lost over and over again on five separate problems. You need to look carefully through your exams and take each problem apart. Don’t just focus on the bottom line.

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