Oral Exams and Political Signs
© 1 September 2021 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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Trusting my own judgment


Oral Exams

An oral exam works as follows: A student and a teacher visit one-on-one. The teacher asks the student questions. The student talks through their answers and the thought process that leads to them. The teacher rates the student’s knowledge.

A few years ago, I was asked by my department to collect information about grading from my colleagues and create a policy on grading we could all agree to. Along the way I asked a dozen faculty who had used oral exams to talk about them, and found the following pattern:

Q: “‍Do oral exams work?‍”

A: “‍They’re time consuming, but I think they’re the most accurate assessments I’ve ever given.‍”

Q: “‍Are you worried that your biases and student social skills and nervousness influence the grades you give?‍”

A: “‍I worried about that at first, but I could tell who was being slick and who was nervous and separate that from what they knew.‍”

Those questions turned out to be irrelevant to the task I was working on then, but I’ve pondered those answers many times since. They were worried about biases, but that worry went away when they were in the position where biases were mostly likely to be operative through them.

Political signs

A political road-side sign works as follows: Someone posts the name of a candidate in their yard. You see it repeatedly until it feels familiar. You go to the polls and that name feels familiar, and thus good. You vote for that name.

From time to time I’ve asked people I’ve been with when passing a political sign about them, and I found the following pattern:

Q: “‍Do political signs influence your vote?‍”

A: “‍No, of course not.‍”

Q: “‍But they must influence someone, right? Else why spend money on them?‍”

A: “‍Well, sure, they work on irrational people, but not on people like you and me.‍”

I asked these questions to make small talk, but I’ve pondered those answers many times since. Is that the way the world works? Some people are sign-immune and others are sign-swayed? Do the sign-swayed people know they are sign-swayed? Who do I know that might be one of the sign-swayed that I could ask about this?

Is it I?

During his last supper, Jesus told his friends that one of them would betray him. Mark describes their response as “‍And they began to be sorrowful, and to say unto him one by one, ‘‍Is it I?‍’ and another said, ‘‍Is it I?‍’‍”Mark 14:19, KJV There are two ways to read that: one a proud “‍you’re not accusing me, are you? I’m no betrayer.‍” and the other a meek “‍do you know something about me that I don’t? How can I fix it?‍”

When I talked with colleagues about oral exams, their answers resonated: I had given oral exams, and my experiences had mirrored theirs. When I asked friends about political signs, even if I doubted their assertion of non-influence I never doubted that I was immune to their influence. Someone is biased and someone is swayed by signs, but you don’t think it’s me, do you?

But that’s the wrong response. If I go into life assuming I have no flaw, my chance of ever improving is minimal at best.

Is it I? Did I give that student a higher score because they were smooth? Did I vote for that candidate because they had a lot of signs?

Presumably the answer is, at least in part, “‍yes.‍” And once I accept that answer I can devote attention to the follow-up question: how can I make the answer less “‍yes‍” the next time?

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