Jul. 24, 2014

One action to improve professor quality

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November 15, 2012

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Having trouble getting in touch with your professor? The Huffington Post published a Princeton Review list Saturday of the nine colleges with the most accessible professors, and it did not include the College of William and Mary. However, despite not being in elite company, professor accessibility does not seem to be a big problem at the College: Most professors hold regular office hours and are responsive to email. I have not heard many student grumblings about being unable to get in touch with professors, and last year 10 professors at the College even ranked in the Princeton Review’s top 300, providing a strong lead for other professors to follow. But the College’s faculty members are not perfect. If administrators are truly concerned with the education College students are receiving, they should ensure that professors at the College find a way to return students’ examinations and assignments.

Tests and assignments determine how well students understand and are able to communicate material in relation to their peers. However, the exercise of learning the information and how to express it is futile for the student if the result is simply a number. Giving the graded material back — with comments, in the case of written assignments — allows students to see what information they did not understand and gives them better insight into how to improve in the future. Professors who do not return exams usually allow students to look over their tests during the professor’s office hours, but often these office hours conflict with a student’s schedule and by the time they are able to schedule an appointment, the information is no longer frelevant to the course material being studied. Furthermore, a professor’s not returning graded material results predominantly from laziness, and that can be easily remedied.

Professors probably do not return exams because they want to reuse them and do not want future students to have a leg up in their class. It is easy for a student to share his old test with a student who is currently in the class. In fact, many Greek organizations have test banks of old exams that current students can use to study. The simple solution would be to craft new exams for each semester the course is taught. If a student reused parts of an old essay that he or she wrote for a similar assignment, it would be deemed plagiarism. Professors are essentially doing the same thing when they reuse old exams. Furthermore, using a friend’s old exam to study from can be a great tool for students to use to prepare themselves for the format and difficulty level of a test.

Another potential reason some professors do not return students’ graded material is because they want to have the exams on record in case there is a dispute over the grade. These sorts of disputes seem rare to me, and in my cynical opinion, they are largely used as a cover for professors not wanting to create new tests. However, if this truly is a problem, there are several simple solutions. The best would be for the professors to post the answer key to Blackboard, keep students’ scantrons, and distribute the hard copy of the exam. Another solution would be for the professor to give back the exams for a class period to go over answers and have students return the exams at the end of the period.

Failure to return graded material is a widespread problem in higher education, although it is generally limited to large lectures at the College. Nevertheless, this is one small step that the College could take to improve its students’ educational experience and show prospective students that learning is the College’s greatest priority. Students should be encouraged to learn from their mistakes and how to fix them without major obstacles. Addressing this problem probably would not bring us much closer to the top 10 in accessibility, but it would help prepare us for this time next year when the Princeton Review publishes a top 10 list in teaching, dedication or innovation.

Email Max Cea at mrcea@email.wm.edu.

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About Author

Max Cea

Associate Online Editor Max Cea '15 is currently undeclared. He was previously Associate Opinions Editor.

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