We're a little crazy, about science!

Day 267: The problem with exams

test anxiety

I like to take my anti anxiety medication with a light snack thirty minutes before the exam. That way I get the full effect from the meds at about 30 minutes into the exam. The effects don’t last long enough to make it the entire exam, so I split the difference and this gives me the best result since I can’t stop half way and take more. Unfortunately, they don’t help, they never really do. I feel jittery, like I had too much coffee. I can’t remember the things I need to know and screw up even the simplest parts of the exam because I’m more focused on keeping my heart from exploding out of my chest!

I’m an anxious person. I also have a lot of weird quarks that may lead people to wonder if there is something wrong with me, I’ve even had awkward experiences with instructors and colleagues accidentally bumping into these quarks. One of the fun things about being me is test anxiety. It happens every time no matter how sure I am that I am ready. Do I know the material? Doesn’t matter! Always the same issue and I do my best to chemically counter this part of me. I have it down to a science to get the maximum effect at about the time I really need it. Does not matter… the result is always the same. I don’t have meds strong enough to help and the ones that are knock me out, meaning I’m stuck.

Exams have been the bane of my existence since I started my higher education, so quite a while now. Thankfully this term my class had no exams, instead we had projects. I absolutely love projects. They give me a chance to excel at something for once. Projects are the things that work with my quarks and in that joyous harmony I produce some of my best work. A few examples from this term are probably in order.

I used material I learned in the course to model a flu pandemic because I couldn’t get good COVID-19 data at the time, this was one of the, “design your own problem” assignments and we had four total over the term. COVID-19 had barely made a blip at that point, but just a few weeks later it hit the US and well you know the rest. The instructor was so impressed with the use and the fact that I wanted to model COVID-19 next, my code was distributed amongst the students who wanted to do the big term project on modeling COVID-19 with me. I also had a super fun write up for that assignment, which I got far too excited about doing and even created a few old school ascii graphics and everything. Like this one for example…


For the problem I created a sort of game I called Outbreak! Using real-life flu data.

Yep, got way too into it. Again, that is just how my brain works. Sometimes I run with things to the absurdly extreme for what was asked of me * side eyes my Master’s thesis project where I built an entire robot and not just the knee for the robot *. A friend who had taken the course the previous term actually thought this was for the big project and not the homework. Nope, that was next on my to do list.

For the big project instead of using my original model — because what would the fun be in that? — I created an entirely new far more complex model for the COVID-19 outbreak. This one had multiple states and used the recorded infected and the recorded number of deaths to estimate the variables in the equations. Six hundred lines of code, a few stressful weeks later, and I had my new model! Have you seen the video I made for it? If not, you can check it out here, I think it came out great!

The school even ran a story on the few of us who did the modeling project using the I code I wrote. I was named (even though they spelled it wrong!) directly in the article because of how well my video came out. Did I mention I love projects? Because I really do.

Moral of the story time. Exams are supposed to be a way to gauge how much you learned from the course. However, what happens when you know the material, but are a poor test taker? I would not have done as well had I done an exam based course. It is unfortunately a fact I live with, I am horrible at taking exams. I’ve lost letter grades over exams, I hate them.

Conversely, project based courses like the one I took this term still let you apply what you learned. They are just as good, if not better, at measuring how much a student has learned from the course without the pressure of an exam. I don’t understand how we are still stuck on this exam mentality. Taking exams are a skill, I can know the material, but still do quite poorly on an exam because I am not skilled at taking an exam. If the purpose of taking an exam is to see how much you know, then the method behind measuring that is fundamentally flawed.

Well that’s my very opinionated thought on exams. As for the course, the grades were posted yesterday and I aced it, as in I scored 100%, as in did not lose a single point over the course of the term. What can I say, projects are the best!


Yes, I used this for the, “design your own problem” homework question as well. Yes, I really did have a lot of fun with it.


I can’t be alone in feeling this way, right? What do you think, do you prefer exams, projects, maybe something else? I would love to hear from others on this matter!

But enough about us, what about you?

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