china · teaching

A Final Exam in Huadu, Guangzhou

My first mistake became apparent within moments of the first student’s arrival.

Often, I find myself emulating my favorite professors from college. One exam setup I had always been particularly fond of was face-down tests arranged on select desks. It broke up groups without instruction and saved time. With that in mind, I placed some fifty-one exams throughout the room, evenly spaced to hamper cheating.

Well, the first student arrived, looked at the exam, took out her phone, and began taking pictures (this being fifteen/twenty minutes early). I fell upon her like a hawk, and she at least had the grace to blush as she handed me her phone, the camera mode still active.

This set the tone for my first experience with Chinese students and tests.

Students arrived in small bunches, all rowdy and excited over the exam. None showed the slightest hesitation to turn and talk with nearby friends as they looked over the exam before them. Mind you, I did not idly stand by. The problem, however, was once one group was subdued, another batch of students arrived and invigorated (or emboldened) the others.

The lesson: do not set out the tests before the class begins.

Once enough students had arrived (and I had hammered some discipline into them), latecomers no longer riled up the room. I instructed the class on the matter of deductions. Twenty points if you continually speak with neighbors. Twenty points if I see a cellphone, be it in a desk, on a desk, or in a nearby bag. The idea was to motivate them to either stow them away securely or bring them to the front of the room.

Some five students brought their phones to the front. By the end of the exam, some four had lost twenty point (two of whom failed because of it).

Now, I am a restless soul. I spent two hours walking up and down the aisles, looming over the students. In my walks, I quickly realized I had made a grave mistake.

I had never asked the students to clear their desks.

As a student, I always ignored this instruction. I liked writing on-top of the weight of a notebook. Accordingly, I had decided against telling students to clear their desks.

Well, it became rather hard to distinguish between scrap paper, writing surface, and cheating. Two students in the classroom, after enough stalking, were revealed to be hiding notes beneath their exams, and I am sure there were others.

One student even had a printed-out set of the notes. I missed them at first, no doubt out of sheer disbelief. He had made little effort to hide them, or he had not realized I was behind him. The room was rather large.

I was able to lean over the desks and snatch them up from beside his exam. I stared at them in disbelief for a short while, wondering what to do. I completely forgot about him for a moment.

In the end, I decided silence would be the most frightening response, but still it infuriated me to have a student so brazenly cheat.

My hands were probably shaking more from anxiety than excitement, but, standing over him, I began shredding up the notes. He nearly jumped out of his seat at the first tshhhh. I was able to maintain a fearful coldness about my mien while I faced him, but the moment I walked past him it was all I do could not to laugh.

I did not have the nerve to lean over and leave the shreddings beside him, though. At first, I left them on the empty stretch of desk behind him. I soon realized, however, that I did not exactly obliterate the notes. I went and recovered them, the pile undisturbed, after one circuit around the room.

I found two students who, though shrewdly, were chatting consistently. I moved them both, which was enough to quiet one. I could not believe the audacity of the other, a rather attractive and warm girl. Changing her seat did little to quiet her.

Well, the little smiles of guilt she sent me repeatedly died when, at the end of the exam (she had arrived late and was one of the last to finish), I brusquely took her exam and wrote, -20 talking and then, again, -20 talking.

With the other students (and their deductions) I never told them they had lost points. I did not want to distract them from their test or ruin their Christmas. I made a note, obviously, but not one for them to see. I am not sure how much they understood of a one-hundred point test, though.

Towards the end of the exam, I almost filled the room with a shout. I had instructed students to leave their exams at the front beside the podium. Well, I am doing a circle around the room, and when I made the turn, I saw some six or seven students huddled over the exams, sorting through them.

I was speechless for a moment. Students who could go through the finished exam so brazenly… how do you react? Would such a student respond to anything short of a physical confrontation? The thought left me frozen for the space of a second.

And then I was filled with such an unfathomable wrath that I rushed towards them with the intent to tear up the exams in their hands. Fortunately, some of my wroth lessened by the time I reached them, and I realized they were not just going through the finished exams. They were adding theirs to the collection.

It turns out that these students were organizing the finished exams in order of student ID. I must not have noticed it with the first three or so (or those three had not cared).

In the end, one failed because of cheating, one failed because of ability (or lack of), and three failed because of deductions. We’ll see how my other classes fare.

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