Saturday, January 19, 2008

Exam anxiety

Taking comps is traumatic, so you're only going to get one post on the topic, or you'll feel as queasy as I do.

The way the econ comp works is that a week before the exam you are given a specific article on the economics of education. At that point, the goal is to study it in great depth. You look for everything you don't understand and figure it out, look for holes that could change their findings, and try to guess what questions will be asked.

The exam itself was 7 questions, three of which were multi-part. We had an hour. This makes sense, in a way, because in the first exam, we had three hours to cover three subjects, although I allocated a more than proportional time to econ that time around. We actually ended up with about 10 extra minutes this time.

The first four questions I felt pretty solid on, but I've learned that I am less able to trust my perceptions when it comes to econ than to other topics. Back at IUPUI, I was sure I had flunked our first test in the microeconomics class. I was certain! And then I got it back, and I don't remember the exact grade, but it was at least a B, so nowhere near flunking. And after the comps first time around, I wasn't confident about my econ performance, but this time my uneasiness was right.

I skipped to question 7, then. Six and 7 were "what-if" scenarios. I think if there was an area our studying was weak on, this was it. We were so focused on understanding every footnote and every table that we didn't think, "OK, what scenarios could make their findings invalid?" And we've been through Dr. Ballou's stuff before, so we should have anticipated it. Then again, the possibilities for that sort of thing are infinite, right?

Then I went back to question 5, and just as I was working into it, we were told we had 10 minutes left. I ended up spending three minutes on the last question, and I can tell you that was a flub - I only had time for gut reactions with no explanations. I never run out of time on tests, even when I do badly, but all three of us worked up to the last second. One would expect, of course, that those of us who are poorer at the subject would take longer, but I'm not entirely sure it was just us versus the length of the test. (As there was no control group of highly economically competent grad students, this is just conjecture.)

So now the tests have to be scored. A 1 is a flunk, and 2-4 pass. It's entirely likely that Dr. Ballou has already marked them, but he has blind copies, so he wouldn't be able to tell us how we did. (Unless we all passed, right? So that means we probably didn't.) If a test gets a 1, it goes to a second reader. Judging from last time around, the second reader is unlikely to give it a different score. My two fellow test-takers also had to retake the methods exam, and it's possible they won't tell any of us anything officially until all results are in.

And now, we wait.


Rebecca said...

This is interesting to me. I am also in ed policy and trying to figure out the best format for my comps. Yes, read that again; I'm supposed to decide and negotiate it with my chair. My department sees everything from portfolios and "your diss proposal passed so that's your comps" to "answer these 3 questions that can be about ANYTHING covered since you started taking questions" either timed (easier grading) or untimed/ take-home (harsh grading).

I would almost prefer your style. There is some structure to it and something to focus my study on. Yes, it sums up what I've learned in the past few years and displays my expertise, but it does so without being this huge wide-open thing where I don't know what the questions will be like.

Of course, I'd actually prefer the portfolio/diss proposal route. Portfolios allow me to show that I can publish (either with someone or alone) while the proposal (first 3 chapters of the diss) includes dealing with contextualizing and the literature review for the subject I will focus on. Both strike me as more useful.

smanda said...

Wow, so you just have to read one article and then take a test on it? Do you have to take orals too or just writtens?

turducken said...

Hm, I think many people in my program would rather be in your system. You at least have some control if you can negotiate a good format! We have to be tested even on the subjects we do not intend to use again. However, I can certainly see why you would like to have your program settle on one way of doing things. That must be unnerving.

I think the biggest theoretical drawback to our exams is that they exactly replicate coursework. The econ of ed exam covers the econ of ed class; the sociology exam exactly covers the soc class. The exams are written by the profs that taught the course. This leads to the obvious question - shouldn't our satisfactory grades be enough proof of mastery, then? What more information does the exam provide?

To mean something, I think the exams should test our ability to integrate knowledge across disciplines or to adapt what we already know to a new situation. Or they should do what they do in most humanities programs and be individualized for what that particular student proposes to be a specialist in. As it stands, none of us are sure what purpose they serve, other than to be a hoop to jump through.

turducken said...

Nope, nothing oral.

But that's just the econ format - the professor chooses the format, within the bounds of being a written exam.

The international education exam question consisted of four questions. Question A was "What are the purposes of education and how are those purposes defined and measured?" - a very different type of question. We had three hours to answer econ/ soc or int'l/ and politics of ed. We had another three hours for methods. And then a final three hours that were either K-12 or higher ed.

Rebecca said...

Wait; they aren't integrative? That makes no sense to me. I agree with you; if you've passed the course why should you be tested again on the same material.

I do see the point of using an article as the stimulus and I suppose they would tell you that it was a way of showing that you can apply the knowledge. Still...

As far as negotiating the best format, the question is what is the best? If you wait until your diss proposal is approved that can take quite some time. if you do a portfolio you are at the whim of the anonymous reviewers.

I really need to figure out the answer to which is the best, since I'm technically done with classes. (I'm taking an extra one this term because of my work schedule, but that only delays for a few months.)

btw, I'm jealous that you have someone to teach economics of ed. I probably know as much as anyone else around here because my masters is in business; this is a very qualitative department and it makes me crazy.

are you going to aera? we should meet up...

turducken said...

I would say "your diss proposal passed so that's your comps" is the best format. :) Otherwise, I don't know, but I think you'd at least have an illusion of control - if you thought your portfolio was strong, you could go with that.

If you want economics, come to Vanderbilt! We have at least four profs in my department whose work is driven by it. On the other hand, we have only two who could be described as qualitative, one of whom is a historian.

Yes, I'll be at AERA. You won't want to miss the Vandy reception.

Rebecca said...

we'll have to find a way to meet up! I'm presenting 1 session and chairing 2.

I probably should have gone there; You have a center on my core topic (school choice). I'm totally quantitative in my approach and my secondary interest is history; we don't have a historian here either.

(I went here [ASU] because it was convenient and a decently ranked school. We weren't in a position to move. I now realize the flaw in that plan.... If I had wanted to do qualitative work on language policy I would be in the best place in the world. Everything else is kind of lacking....)