Another class, another quiz by
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Prompted By Exams

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In high school quizzes were as regular as the clock, one in every class four days a week unless there was another graded work in class. Most quizzes were done using strips of lined white paper, as burned in my memory as blue books. The fifth day often featured labs in science or foreign languages. In English class one day every week was essay day – walk into the classroom, find out the day’s topic, and start writing an essay on paper to be completed by the end of the class period of -40 minutes. Any clearcut grammatical error meant a failing grade. At the end of each quarter each class had an exam. Sometimes tests, bigger than a quiz and smaller than an exam, covered defined sections of material.

Doodles around the edge of the exam plugged “Rule, Britannia”

Breaks from the four days a week rule occurred rarely but the big exception was Jewish holidays. So many kids were out that it wasn’t worth bothering with quizzes or tests. One year four of my five teachers observed the holidays, and with the school seeing no value in hiring substitutes in that situation we had free study hall most of the day. Those glorious test-free days all day long were eagerly awaited by the Christian kids who soon learned the schedule of Jewish holidays as well as anyone. I always thought they should treat Christmas the same way, scheduling school but letting those observing the holiday stay out so that the Jewish kids could also experience such stress-free, test-free days.

In college the norm was some combination of one or two hourly exams, one or two papers, and a final exam. Math or science classes usually had weekly problem sets or lab reports which often were graded only as pass/fail. Many days without graded tests seemed luxurious and a sign of being an adult. Freedom! My first year calculus course followed the common pattern for math courses, weekly problem sets, two hourly exams, and a final exam. That went quite smoothly. In third semester calculus the professor assigned four problem sets all semester that covered only seemingly random parts of the material. The professor would walk into the classroom and spend the whole time looking at the blackboard as he wrote equations. His goal seemed to be to avoid eye contact by never looking in the direction of the students. The final exam was in Memorial Hall where the proctor started all announcements with “Goodpeople”. I walked in knowing that while I understood the concepts of the course I had little grasp of how to solve reasonable problems.  When Mr Goodpeople gave the 10 minute warning I looked at the blue book and saw I had written anything at all for about two-thirds of the questions. It must have been graded on quite a curve because I got a B+ for the course.

The next semester I wanted to take fourth semester calculus, differential equations, but to actually learn the material. I scoured every source of information on the teaching quality of every section instructor and found one with consistently rave reviews. Her notable practice was to assign homework problems for every class. That seemed like a return to the “another class, another quiz” pattern that was so high school, but after Professor Blackboard I was ready to take the plunge. Thus I met the only known person to have a decades long career at Harvard because of superb teaching skills, Deborah Hughes Hallett. She was a grad student teaching an intermediate level course. The assigned problems were not graded but served as the basis for the first part of each class. Participation was expected whether you had a great solution or were totally lost on the problem. By the end of that discussion everyone in the room understood the problem and solution. Then she would move on to the next topic in preparation for the next problems and class. I walked into her exams confident that I understood both concepts and problems. The exam would be challenging and rewarding.  Keeping up with the material for classes is what mattered not the frequent testing, especially in courses where the material built steadily on what came before. It was even easy to smile at her cute doodles around the edges of the exam paper which usually plugged “Rule, Britannia.”

Two decades later I learned that she had not finished the Ph.D. but was still in the math department at Harvard as Senior Preceptor with a specialty of how to teach college-level math. While writing this story I googled her and found that she still has no Ph.D. but is a Professor of Math at U. of Arizona and an Adjunct Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She must be at least 75 and that sounds like a great way to enjoy the fruits of a career teaching college students math while also trying to teach math professors how to teach — an academic career path no one could have planned. I think Harvard should give her an honorary doctorate.

 

Profile photo of JeanZ JeanZ


Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. Jeff Gerken says:

    Hi, Jean. Several clues in your story confirmed my suspicion that you are one of my classmates, ’71. I wish I had had your experience with Professor Hallett. I found the differential equations classes difficult because they didn’t really to into the reason for the problem being solved. One of these days, I would like to take a differential equations based course in physics.
    I looked back at my DiffEQ book from 1968-69 a couple of years ago, and realized that I didn’t remember much of it, so I enrolled as a special undergrad at UNC Wilmington and took the class over again. Well, not actually – at the time, I had only lived in NC for about ten months, so they wouldn’t give me in-state status. I wrote to the professor, and told him that I was not willing to pay $2000 for a course just for the heck of it. He told me to come in anyway, that I could sit in on the class if there was an open seat. I attended every class, did every homework problem, did the class project, and ended up with one of the top grades in the class. Several other students depended on my tutoring for their success.
    I still believe that any day that I do not learn something new is a wasted day.

    • JeanZ says:

      Yes, I am ‘71 and the only Jean in the class, I think.

      I recall most of the examples as being physics which I had not taken but I still found applications more motivating than pure theory. That is probably the basis for math professors being poor teachers. They care mostly about theory while the students want to learn math to apply it to other fields.

  2. Suzy says:

    Love this story, Jean! Your high school must have been in NYC to have such a high percentage of Jewish students and teachers. It would have been nice, when I stayed out on the High Holy Days, not to have to worry about what I was missing. But those daily quizzes sound dreadful, I’m very glad my HS didn’t do that even though we were all college prep.

    Glad to know you remember Mr. Goodpeople too.

    Seeing the name Deborah Hughes Hallett was such a rush! Hadn’t thought of her in decades. She is a wonderful person! I didn’t meet her through math, but through the process of women moving down to the Harvard Houses in 1970. She may have been Senior Tutor in Quincy House, or something like that. I fully support your idea of giving her an honorary doctorate.

    • JeanZ says:

      My high school was a college prep, public school in Providence.
      Deborah invited our class to a party she was giving in her Senior Tutor suite. I couldn’t have named which house but Quincy seems likely.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    Your story left me wondering where you went to high school. It sounded rather rigorous. Back in the era when I taught high school English (1967-71) at a good Chicago suburban public school, I was expected to give frequent quizzes and exams and to assign one essay per week. With 125 students, that was quite a bit of reading and grading. If I had failed e very student who made a clear cut grammatical error, no one would have passed! Your college math instructor, Deborah Hughes Hallett, is inspiring. Sadly, many professors with Ph.D.s don’t know how to teach. Thanks for sharing her story, Jean.

    • JeanZ says:

      Classical High School in Providence.

      I do think the quizzes were pretty easy to grade. The teachers figured out ways to elicit key info concisely. Essays were another matter. The worst thing about the best English teacher I had there was that she was very slow at getting those graded and returned — good feedback but I often wished I had had it weeks earlier.

  4. Uh oh, another HR 71. Have we reached critical mass?

    Growing up in upstate New York we didn’t have the much larger Jewish student population of the metropolitan area. Consequently there was no relief during those holidays, and our observant Jewish classmates had to fend for themselves. I say “observant” deliberately in memory of George Carlin who first noted that while Christians celebrate holidays, Jews observe them.

    I had several friends who attended Catholic schools, and they got Catholic Holy Days off, albeit with the requirement that they attend 7am Mass. Not a trade-off I found attractive.

    • JeanZ says:

      We may be a critical mass but we are friendly to all!
      I did know Catholic schools that had not only Good Friday but also Maundy Thursday off. Mass may have been a requirement but I don’t think it was 7 am or enforced.

  5. Indeed friendly to all. And, yes, the 7am one was a critical Mass. Not just Holy Week but also All Saint’s Day (Nov 1) the Immaculate Conception (Dec 8) and at least one more. Assumption? In May? Anyway the school for our parish was right across the street from our junior high school and the timing of that Mass meant that the parochial school kids were out in time to gloat as we arrived for school.

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