THINKING ALOUD

A prof's guide to exams

By Andrew Duffy

ILLUSTRATION: DEREK CHUA
In exams, students are lucky. They have ready-made entertainment, specifically designed to keep them amused for precisely two hours.

Professors, on the other hand, are less fortunate. We have to make our own entertainment. It's like being on a looong car journey.

Are we there yet?

We're meant to wander round the room watching the students, who really aren't doing much to amuse us. So I play games to while away the hours...

  1. I attempt exam papers set by other profs. I don't try to answer the questions, of course; I only try to understand them. Sometimes all I can make sense of is the number code in the top corner.
  2. I count the left-handed people, based on the idea that lefties are more creative. I can report that 10.6% of NTU students are left-handed, slightly above global norms if Wikipedia is correct. The phenomenon is more common among engineers than humanities types. Good news for them: They will earn 10-15% more than right-handers. The bad news: They may not live as long, because everything has been designed by and for righties.
  3. I occupy my mind by wondering, if everyone in the exam hall was dropped on a desert island, who would emerge as the tribal chieftain? And who wouldn't even make it as far as sundown on Day 1? Who would be first for lunch? And I don't mean at the front of the buffet queue...
Are we there yet?

Of course, students also play little games in exams. I have seen colour-coordinated M&M's lined up along the edge of the desk. Others have lucky cuddly toys.

But the absolute winner was the student with the bottle of red wine perched next to his matric card. A small bottle, like the one given out on airplanes. Enough to give a bit of a buzz, but not enough to make karaoke seem like a good idea. Ideal for an exam, when you think about it.

We checked the rules, and there's nothing to say that students cannot drink Cabernet Sauvignon in exams. Strange how the exam board neglected to think of that one.

But it wasn't just the wine that impressed me. It was the cut crystal goblet he poured it into, and the way he raised it to toast me – “Cheers!” – as I walked past. That attention to detail, that sheer style, that's what we like to see in our students.

But I was curious enough to check his grade later – I'm sure you're wondering – and it was B minus. I don't know whether the wine raised or lowered his score. But... B minus?

Professors are discouraged from drinking during exams, probably because it seems like a really good idea as the second hand crawls round the clock face.

But there's a comedy sketch (The Armstrong and Miller Show – it's on YouTube) which shows bored teachers finding other ways to pass the time, particularly at the back of the exam hall where students can't see them. They dance. They build a six-man pyramid. They swing from ropes, swordfight, disembowel each other, and pretend to pull students' heads off.

Of course, NTU students will never know what bored professors are thinking about in the exam hall. But I hope this article gives them just enough information to be ever so slightly nervous.

Now face the front.

Andrew Duffy is an Assistant Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information. He has previously worked for The New Paper and The Straits Times.