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.