27

I've noticed a majority of professors that I have had will tell students something along the lines of, the exam covers Chapters 1, 2, 3, or the exam covers topics X, Y, Z. Sometimes this is ends up being so broad that it is unlikely that students will even see all the material that is fair game on the exam. It also likely ends up with some material being more prominent than other material which means playing the guessing game.

Why are professors hesitant to tell students more precisely what they expect them to know?

I do realize that not all (perhaps even most?) professors have not written the exam at the point of informing students what is covered. However, given that undergraduate course material is fairly static, would not the professor be expecting the students to have the same knowledge as the previous students?

  • 4
    In my institution most (if not all) professors simply put all previous exam tests on their webpage, so students can simply go there and see how exactly the exam will look like (and they can exercise with old ones). In this way they can also see how the program changed during the years. – Bakuriu Dec 14 '14 at 19:15
  • 6
    @user3730788: maybe "chapters 1,2,3" is precisely what they want you to know. Each class of my 5-year undergraduate degree finished with an oral exam in which everything covered in class was fair game. And we survived. – Martin Argerami Dec 15 '14 at 6:02
  • 2
    Look at it this way: the extreme end of this is simply telling students what questions are on the exam. Different teachers are willing to make different concessions on the way to that end. The less specific the prof is about what will be on the test, the student will be forced to be more general in their studies, and hopefully they will learn a lot doing that, rather than focusing on solving a particular problem. That said, example questions are also very valuable: I'm not arguing for no sample questions. – rschwieb Dec 15 '14 at 15:01
  • 4
    2 the teacher didn't let us take notes — what is this I don't even – JeffE Dec 18 '14 at 6:13
  • 1
    I have to ask why you think a professor would not be ambiguous about the contents of the exam? It's not like I care that you can bone up---anyone who has made it to college can be expected to manage that. Go home and learn it all, already! – dmckee Dec 19 '14 at 0:23
69

There are at least four worries, in my experience:

  • The students may be trying not to study any more than they absolutely have to study. So if the professor says something isn't on the exam, they won't study it.

  • If the professor says what is on the exam, but doesn't explicitly mention something, and then that thing comes up (even as a minor part of another problem), the students may complain that "you said that wasn't on the test!". This can happen even if the professor really made a good faith effort to say what was on the test, and the students simply misunderstood.

  • The professor may not have written the exam yet, and so she doesn't know the exact topics that will be included.

  • Someone else may write the exam, if there are many sections of the course taking the same exam. In that case, the professor may not be permitted to say what is on the exam. When I was a postdoc, they didn't even show us the common calculus exam until just before it was administered.

There are various strategies to cope with these worries. A common one, as described in the question, is to just say that the exam can include everything from the class, which is not very informative but is otherwise harmless.

There are other strategies, as well, such as making an exam review packet that includes more than the exam possibly could, and then selecting exam problems based on the review packet. But these don't help with the issue of common exams written by someone else.

By the way, if turnaround is fair play: we professors often ask the dual question: why do students so often ask what will be on the exam, when they have just had a class on the same material that will be on the exam? As you can imagine, we may feel that we have already told the students what we want them to know, by designing the course to include it!

  • 12
    In response to your last point, I would note that some universities assess points which are not taught on the course and it is expected of students to study them outside of class. It is important in these cases that students know this is so. – Vality Dec 15 '14 at 1:31
  • 3
    "why do students so often ask what will be on the exam, when they have just had a class on the same material that will be on the exam?" -- aside from the work-avoidant ones who'll completely ignore anything not examined, those who are planning to do last-night revision want to plan what to revise, so it's helpful to know whether there's anything to leave out. One could say "ah, well, cramming is pointless, covering the course normally will ensure you retain everything you need to know". But that wouldn't really engage with the fact that students in fact do revise, and believe that it helps :-) – Steve Jessop Dec 15 '14 at 10:14
  • 2
    @SteveJessop: I think another important answer to that question is that simply not all content from a course is suitable for exams, and some content is nice to know, but nothing I'd consider remotely relevant enough to include in an exam. Owing to their generally limited overview of the field/topics compared to the lecturers, (some) students tend to be inherently bad at estimating which is which. When I was involved with exams, we usually wanted students to have a fair chance to pass - and that includes pointing out that for the exam, it's more useful to understand (w.l.o.g.) the ... – O. R. Mapper Dec 15 '14 at 10:47
  • 2
    ... conceptual difference between a pre-test loop and a post-test loop in whatever programming language was used during the course than to know the exact names of any runtime library functions that may need to be invoked. Or, as another example: While the class material may mention groundbreaking statements of important people in the field, whether or not exact quotations of those statements, the names of the people that expressed them, or the years, are asked in the exam, is not inherently clear from the class, but requires either old exams for comparison or simply a direct question. – O. R. Mapper Dec 15 '14 at 10:47
38

Due to time constraints, most exams directly ask about only a small fraction of the course material. If a professor explicitly tells students exactly what parts of the material are going to be directly tested on the exam, many students would only bother to learn that material.

Therefore, professors often include anything they want students to learn/study in the exam coverage.

(There are obviously tradeoffs involved: include too much and students won't be able to study the really important things at a sufficient level of depth, include too little and the students won't get enough breadth.)

  • 20
    This is particularly because most of the learning benefit of exams comes from the time students spend studying the material. – Oswald Veblen Dec 14 '14 at 17:01
13

There are several aspects to this:

First of all: I don't know what questions I will use in the exam before I actually have written it - which may very well not have happened before the actual day of the exam. I have a pool of over 300 questions, categorised by the expected length of the answer (no multiple choice over here in Switzerland - you must word your own answers). The duration of the exam (normally 4x60 mins) determines the number of questions from each category. But the actual questions are chosen randomly, I even wrote a programme to do this part for me, to make sure that it is fair (I have my "favourites", the programme doesn't).

Secondly, I want the students to have a close look at large parts of the most important materials of the field. I don't expect them to know everything and all questions are worded in a way, that you can answer with the knowledge from one area or that of another; e.g. a question on the relevance of Hegel or Nietzsche can be answered from a historical point of view (what lead there and where did it lead afterwards?) or from a philosophical point of view (what did they say and why is that important?). So if you're weak in historical knowledge but strong in philosophical, you can put the stress on the latter and still get full scores - and vice versa, of course.

This way the exams are fair: Everybody knows the area, they can learn what is most interesting to them and still everybody can get good grades, given they really put effort into the preparations.

For oral exams the answer is pretty similar: The examiner and the co-examiner prepare a pool of questions at a meeting normally not much more before the exam than maybe a week. So also here: We simply don't know what questions will be in the exam, we just know which areas we want to cover. Also here we will adjust the questions to the strongest areas of the examinee. They have 5 to 10 minutes at the beginning to show us what they know: They choose a topic and get started. After that we ask questions with stress on that area. You quickly know which students have prepared well and which didn't.

Basically: If we see the effort, the grade will be good.

11

In addition to the other answers my personal motivation is based upon the fact that any exam is only a sample. To be valid as an assessment of how much the student knows about the subject this can only work if it is a truly random sample. If students know, or can predict due to a bias on topic selection, what topics are actually going to be assessed there is no random sample, and therefore the exam is no longer valid as random sample.

As such I do not give hints on what is covered in the exam. I do make clear which topics will not be covered, or what the structure of the exam will be. I will even help with tips such as including answer plans (such as mindmaps), examples and diagrams.

1

The question raises a few points that I would like to address separately.

I've noticed a majority of professors that I have had will tell students something along the lines of, the exam covers Chapters 1, 2, 3, or the exam covers topics X, Y, Z. Sometimes this is ends up being so broad that it is unlikely that students will even see all the material that is fair game on the exam.

In your "sometimes" scenario, it sounds like you are saying that the exam covers a chapter or topic that has not been addressed at all in the lectures or in the homework. If so, this sounds like a serious problem that is different than the concern described in the question title.

It also likely ends up with some material being more prominent than other material which means playing the guessing game.

Indeed, not all material from the term can be represented on the exam (because the exam period is so much shorter than the term!) So some material will end up being more prominent than other material (which may even be absent.) I don't agree that this means "playing the guessing game". I think it would usually work better to study everything a little bit than to guess a random subset and study that to the exclusion of everything else.

Why are professors hesitant to tell students more precisely what they expect them to know?

There are two senses of "expect [students] to know" here. In one sense, we expect students to know everything we taught; otherwise we wouldn't have wasted our time and theirs teaching it. In a more limited sense, for the exam we expect you to know the answers to the exam questions. Obviously we're not going to tell those.

However, given that undergraduate course material is fairly static, would not the professor be expecting the students to have the same knowledge as the previous students?

In the first sense, yes: for this term's exam, we expect the students to know everything we covered this term, and for last term's exam, we expected the students to know everything we covered last term. So if what we covered is the same, what we expect the students to know is also the same (but this isn't a very useful observation.) In the second sense, no: we ask different question on this term's exam than on last term's exam; otherwise if some students get hold of the last exam, it defeats the purpose of the exam.

Executive summary: We expect you to know everything we taught you—duh :-)

0

I think your premise is wrong. I've never had a professor not disclose the scope of knowledge and/or skill that I'm expected to know at the end of the course.

I've always been told to expect the exam to cover a subset of that material, sometimes with more explicit relative weighting between areas.

  • I think the question is why professors don't announce exactly which subset will be covered. – Nate Eldredge Dec 16 '14 at 6:06
  • OH... maybe?? But why would that even matter? – Akka Demic Dec 17 '14 at 21:08

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.