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Should I argue with my professor on this?

  1. Oct 9, 2010 #1
    Two days ago, we had our midterm. The course is first-year chem, we had about 300 students in the same room writing of two different classes. So there are two professors teaching and they both make the exam for both classes.

    Two weeks before the exam, our professor told us the brief outline of what will be on the exam. In fact, everyone was supposingly well-prepared for the exam, we all did our practice midterms and read all our books and did all the homework.

    Enough to say, I am not complaining about that "she lied to us", but the content of the exam was ridiculously unfair. I don't know what happened, but only 2/5 of what the course covered was in there.

    The other 3/5 had questions that weren't even in our textbook. Before you say "you probably didn't study hard enough or you were slacking off or you are just mad because you did poorly", I will tell you now, I am not mad if the exam asked questions that is covered in our scope. I asked my brother to help me on one of the question that I memorized from the exam since the professors don't release solutions, and he told me this was a 3rd-year analytical chemistry question, but he said it was an easy 3rd-year analytical chemistry question.

    There was one huge topic that the professor asked us to cover "because it weighs 20% of the exam", it never existed on the exam...

    The main problem is, a lot of the questions on the exam was not the material covered in our textbook and we never copied notes because our professor take slides straight from the book and reads them. She does not have any original material, so we never could have even tackled the problem properly.

    Shamefully, I say that I am "glad" because everyone I know pretty much gave up on the exam. However, I am very unpleased that my GPA will be damaged by this. I feel like the $500 my parents paid for this course is being robbed from me. I don't understand what is going on seeing I am doing so well in my other courses.

    So should I (and how) argue with my professor on this?

    If I am missing some information or you have questions, let me know, I typed this up pretty quickly.
    Last edited: Oct 9, 2010
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 9, 2010 #2
    If all the other students agree with you, and you can prove that it wasn't covered by the course, you should say something or ask administration about it. Perhaps the prof wasn't used to teaching your class and thus didn't give knowledge-specific questions.
  4. Oct 9, 2010 #3
    How can you get robbed when you already took the course?
  5. Oct 9, 2010 #4
    Do you have a student ombudsman or an official, concerned with student matters? Maybe address your concerns at him, and if other students feel the same, then do it as collective effort. While it's always nice to "stand for your beliefs" and all, singling yourself out at this level by arguing with the professor directly might not be the best option you have right now. Not only will she probably not take it well, but you're going to achieve less than you would by contacting the appropriate office.
  6. Oct 9, 2010 #5


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    One of the differences between high school and university is that rather than exams being a regurgitation of the material covered in class, the exams are aimed at evaluating the student's general understanding of the subject material as a whole. Professors will often place challenging questions on exams to challenge their students and basically allow the exceptional students to shine.

    Now, what you have going for you is that everyone in those classes wrote the same mid-term. If all of the 300 students missed a question, you have a solid argument that it was an unfair question. But likely there will be some who answered it. Before you go arguing or complaining, make sure that you know the stats. It's also worth remembering that you will more than likely be graded on a curve - so your final mark will be based on how you performed in relation to your peers.

    I've always believed that exams should be laid out as follows:
    1. A core of 60% that tests the understanding of the basic concepts covered in the course. A student who studies the course material and is able to solve the homework and sample problems should be able to answer all of these questions.

    2. Roughly 20% of somewhat challenging problems that may not have been directly covered before, but would be solveable by someone who has a clear understanding of the material covered.

    3. A challenging 20% that not everyone will be able to get. These questions should extend from the principles covered in the course, but require the student to think of the material in new ways.

    This would mean that students who basically review their course notes and homework problems would end up with marks in the 60-70% range. Students who become actively engaged with the material and think about it will end up in the 70-90% range. And only those who really know their stuff will jump over that 90% and distinguish themselves.
  7. Oct 9, 2010 #6
    Whatever you do make sure that you "sit" on your decision for at least a couple days. DOn't do anything while "hot".
  8. Oct 9, 2010 #7
    i agree
  9. Oct 9, 2010 #8
    There is a huge difference between unfair questions and challenging questions. I don't argue with challenging questions because I've had them in my other classes. But unfair questions are another story.

    This is how I view challenging questions, it will be similiar to our homework or something in the book, but it isn't something that we never covered in class or even in book.

    EDIT: how do I even get the stats? They don't release them until the end of the year.
  10. Oct 9, 2010 #9


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    Is your grade curved at all?
  11. Oct 9, 2010 #10
    I highly doubt it, the way she responded to us "I told you guys should expect 'unseen questions'", even though the correct words were "Be prepared to expect integrated problems in university". No one dared to argue of course, it be difficult too if 100 of my peers were to watch me embarrass myself being scold by the professor.
  12. Oct 9, 2010 #11
    Welcome to college. You should give your professor a gift and say good things about them in their student evaluation because they are doing what a college professor should do.

    You are not in high school any more. The rules are different. Most of the material on college tests will not be material that is directly covered in the courses and this is a good thing. Learn to get used to this, because this is going to be the way things are for now on, not just in college but in life.

    The good news is that it probably won't damage your grades. You'll get a grade that seems really bad, but because things are curved, if you answer three questions out of five and most other people answer two, then you'll end up with a good grade.
  13. Oct 9, 2010 #12
    And that's a perfectly valid thing to do on a college level test. I'd argue that is a *GOOD* thing to do on a college level test. If you fight the issue and you win, I'd argue that you should get your money back since you'll be getting a substandard education.

    College is not high school.
  14. Oct 9, 2010 #13
    Maybe I didn't word it right or you are misinterpreting me. It is something that we have never learned before nor it is in our book and it is on the exam.

    I don't understand why that is "GOOD", if you decide to test students things that you never taught them on an exam that puts a lot of stress on their grades, I really think that is unfair.

    It's like asking a beginner martial art student to beat up a UFC fighter as an exam and tell them that it is "it tests your ability!".

    Do you understand my comparison? Because I feel like we are not on the same page here...

    No, no, no, you don't understand, if the material is not covered in the course, the instructor will include his or her materials. But the stuff is not. It isn't in our book, and our lecturer uses slides FROM the book, so nothing was original. You couldn't even have know what it is.
  15. Oct 9, 2010 #14
    At the school I went to about 20% of the questions were things that were directly covered in class, and 80% were things that that weren't covered in class, that you had to think heavily about to get. Average test scores were in the 40/100 range. There were some really killer questions that no one was expected to get.

    This turned out to be fair because a) grades were heavily curved b) everyone had access to tests from years and years back, so a lot of the studying involved going over old test questions and trying to work through them c) grades in general were deemphasized.

    Personally I think this is a great testing philosophy since it ended up being a good preparation for the "real world" where you have to deal with questions on the test that weren't in the text book.
  16. Oct 9, 2010 #15
    I am not sure if I already this before, but we've had practice midterms on our college site and in comparison most of the material are the same from the past 4 years. This year only a little of it was like the practice exams and the difficult between the exams is obvious.

    I can't get a hold of a hard copy of this year's exam to show you what I mean...
  17. Oct 9, 2010 #16
    And let me jsut add this so there won't be more confusions.

    In my other midterms, Physics and Calc, we've had one or two challenging questions, but it wasn't anything we never learned in class or anythign beyond the scope of what we learned.

    My Physics lecturer also uses slides, but he would give questions similar to our homework

    My calc lecturer doesn't use sliders (of course), but he does cover a few things not from the book, but he would show us how to do it first and then he will make some challenging questions.

    I hope this won't make it even more confusing.
  18. Oct 9, 2010 #17
    No. I think I heard you right. It's just I'm used to a different testing philosophy.

    If it's a weed out class, then I'd agree. If it turns out that you can miss most of the questions on the test and still get a decent grade, then I think it's a great thing to ask questions that come out of nowhere.


    So you get a newbie and you put him in the ring with a UFC fighter, and he lasts for three seconds, and that's considered outstanding because everyone else in the class lasted for two. If you set this up right, then after a while you start feeling good about yourself because you are going head to head with UFC fighters, and you are in the ring for twenty seconds before you get totally creamed.

    You are a newbie now, but your teacher expects you to be a UFC fighter someday, and the only way that is going to happen is if you get put in the ring early with the UFC fighter.

    We are not. Based on what you've told me, I'm completely on the side of your prof, and I'm on his side because he is giving you the same sort of education that I got, and I think it was a good thing for me.
  19. Oct 9, 2010 #18
    How is that good, though? Surely even at universities professors are trying to asses the students' knowledge and distinguish between those who should get an A, B, C, D, E or F, right? If you have a test where even the smartest people get 40 - 50% then in terms of absolute percentage points attained there's less separation between someone getting a B and someone getting a C, compared to making a test, such that it would be possible (but really hard) to get 90 - 100%. Because in the latter case, you would have someone score, say, 65% and the lower grade would be given out for those who score 60% or less. But in the former case, you have someone scoring 33% and someone scoring 31% getting different grades, and since there's a narrower separation, it is more likely that it was just by chance that someone got a couple of percentage points more than the other.
  20. Oct 9, 2010 #19
    I don't think that there is any confusion.

    One thing that you have to be aware of it may be pointless to raise this issue with the professor because he or she may have a teaching and testing philosophy that is similar to mine, and may think that adding questions out of nowhere is a good thing to do. At that point you'll have to escalate, but you may find that everyone in the chain of command from the department head to the dean to the president of the university backs the professor because they've decided that this is the best way to teach.

    At that point, you have to make some decisions about what you really want to do with your future. The reason I think that this is a good way of teaching is that my experience is that this is how you create great physicists and mathematicians, and you'll have to decide if you really want to be a physicist if this is the sort of thing that you have to learn to live with.

    Going from high school rules to college rules is often a culture shock for students.....
  21. Oct 9, 2010 #20
    Hold on, maybe the comparison isn't strong enough to express how brutal the exam was.

    You put an 8-year-old boy training to become a Gladiator in a cage fight with a Lion.

    But going back to the UFC fighter scenario, NO! It does not justify that "it is outstanding", it just justifies that he is getting beat up to make an example. It would probably even discourage students to go further if every professor uses this technique.

    It's almost saying, "if you aren't the President in the United States by next week, you will fail". I know I am stretching this, I apologize.

    When did you graduate? It is 2010 now, competition is much greater.
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