Hundreds of exams in ten days
The great grading marathon
The absolute worst exam? European law. Every year, seven hundred students take the European law exam. It isn’t multiple choice; every question must be graded by hand.
It’s brutal. But professor of economic law, Hans Vedder, says that in terms of checking exams, he actually has it easy right now. He is currently tasked with checking the exams for the competition law course. It contains four questions, and several lecturers check each question. ‘Because it’s a course from the Dutch law master, the number of exams is relatively low. There are approximately fifty.’
It’s shitty work, but if you dally you’ll never get it finished
It takes Vedder two or three minutes to check a single answer. ‘You automatically reach this state of flow’, he says. ‘A morning’s worth of hard work is usually enough for me.’ You do have to start on time, though. ‘It’s shitty work, but if you dally you’ll never get it finished.’
Checking the Dutch law exam, however, means ‘working our asses off’, says Vedder. ‘The numbers are so large that you run the risk of your mind going completely numb.’ You have to take a step back every once in a while: take a walk around the block, get some coffee, chat with colleagues – anything to get your mind off the enormity of the task.
And it’s only natural for lecturers to get things wrong sometimes. ‘It’s happened once or twice during the review that students asked me why they received so few points for an answer. Turns out I got it wrong because I was so tired. It’s not a good feeling.’
Mistakes are aggravating, but understandable. ‘With essay questions, a correct answer could depend on just a few words. When you have to check seven hundred exams, you’re likely to miss one or two.’
And that, Vedder says, is why the review is so important. Because no matter how hard lecturers try to get it right, they occasionally slip up during these massive exams.
So when we make a mistake checking it they tend to get pretty pissed off
But the review is not exactly fun for lecturers, especially not for European law. ‘The atmosphere can be quite hostile. Students really use the time to complain. European law is a pretty tough class that many students struggle with, so there’s a lot riding on it. So when we make a mistake checking it they tend to get pretty pissed off.’
Derk-Jan Heslinga, lecturer at the faculty of Economics and Business, is already staring down a monster exam. The financial accounting exam was made for 1,250 students because several programmes offer the course.
‘The logistics are a nightmare. We don’t have enough computers for this amount of students, so they have to write the exam by hand. We need eight different rooms to accommodate them all.’
And it’s not just the students who are nervous about the exam. ‘I think I might be tenser than the students themselves. If there’s a mistake in the exam, there’s nothing I can do about it. I only calm down after the first hour’s passed.’
And at that point, he hasn’t even started checking the exam. Heslinga is responsible for a third of the Dutch exams: one hundred and fifty in total. ‘I go through approximately fifty a day, to stay fresh. I know it’s part of my job, but I’m always happy when it’s over.’
After all, checking exams is more than just comparing answers to an answer sheet. Heslinga also has to take calculation errors into account. He does use a computer program for support, but it slows down the process. He has to enter each wrong answer for the program to calculate what students should have answered for other questions.
‘I’m quite fast when exams are either done really well or really poorly. Exams people have only performed so-so on take me much longer. That’s where you have to try and find the student’s logic.’
And that’s not all. After checking the exams, Heslinga also has to worry about the review. Students can sign up to enter reviews through Nestor, and they do so in large numbers. ‘One time, a student tweeted that we’d made a mistake in the way we calculated the points, which wasn’t even true. But we got a hundred review registrations in no time. That causes a lot of extra work.’
We double-check the exams signed up to through Nestor. So we’re pretty weasel-proof
But students would be mistaken to think they can weasel their way into an extra decimal point or two during exam reviews. ‘All exams with a grade between a 5 and a 5.5 are double-checked, because we don’t want to mistakenly fail anyone. But we also double-check the exams of the students who sign up through Nestor. So we’re pretty weasel-proof.’
History lecturer Leonieke Vermeer is also buried in work: she’s responsible for 144 Dutch history exams. The exam consists of nine questions and is divided among five lecturers. ‘I spend all day checking a single question. I just checked ten exams in an hour, so do the maths. The worst part is having to stare at your screen all day.’
However, Vermeer says there is one advantage to ‘mass exams’: because so many students take the exam digitally, the difficulty of the exam questions can be neatly analysed. ‘We use a program that keeps track of the “good” students’ scores.’
Whenever students who usually score quite high get a question wrong, the lecturers know it was too difficult. ‘We can take that into account when checking the exam.’ This course, too, takes a second looks at the close calls: exams that score a 5.4 are automatically re-checked.
A few more days of hard work and Vermeer will finally be finished. ‘I don’t enjoy it, but it’s part of the job’, she sighs. Vedder and Heslinga agree. ‘It’s shitty work, but it needs doing.’