Smith: Not just the students who get stressed out

8:45 a.m. Fifteen minutes until go time. More than 1,100 exams and score sheets are neatly stacked and patiently waiting in 10 different classrooms to be distributed by an army of proctors. Large swarms of second-year genetics students anxiously migrate to their assigned rooms across campus. I can feel the sweat trickling down my back and chest. I’m too nervous to drink the cup of coffee that is shaking in my hands. If the students standing behind me didn’t know better, they’d think I was getting ready to write this exam. But I’m not. I, along with my co-instructor, Susanne, prepared it. Susanne is at the opposite end of campus standing outside a large lecture hall. We’ve been texting frantically. “All good on your end?” I ask. “So far …,” she writes back, including a fingers-crossed emoji.

8:50 a.m. The classroom doors open and the students march in. Some are moving quickly – they likely have a particular spot where they want to sit, close to a window or clock, perhaps. Others are more reluctant to take a seat, knowing that the stakes are high, that the next three hours could help or hinder their chances of getting into medical school. A few of the students acknowledge me on the way into the room.

“What’s up, professor Smith?”

“Hi sir, please tell me that the questions aren’t too difficult.”

“Good morning, man. I think I might fail this.”

But most just walk past me with sad, accusing eyes, eyes that say, “Why are you doing this to us? Can’t you just give us all a good mark?” I worry that the students might think that I’m enjoying this, that I’m taking pleasure in putting them through the wringer, that I’m savouring the massive multiple-choice exam that awaits them. If only they knew that I’m as stressed out and worried as they are.

8:58 a.m. Text messages are coming in fast. Shit. We’re one exam short in another room. Susanne is on it. Double shit! Two students in a third room have forgotten their student cards, even after our countless email reminders the week before. Not to worry – we’ll take photos of the students and double-check their identity on Monday. Oh no. A student is throwing up in the bathroom outside a fourth room. OK. Record the student’s name, send her home, and she can write the make-up exam.

9 a.m. You may now open your exam booklets and begin.

9:01 a.m. There is always a quiet before the storm with big exams, a 20- to 30-minute silence before you find out if there is something catastrophically wrong with the questions, content or organization of the test. Stories of exam blunders abound and some have become legendary among my colleagues – like the time the exam had all of the correct answers bolded or the professor who accidentally left out the last two pages of questions. This is why Susanne and I have vetted the questions and proofread them again and again. But as we know from experience, even after careful scrutiny, exams are rarely perfect.

9:05–9:30 a.m. I make my way from building to building, room to room. I see hundreds of heads hunched over desks. I get the thumbs up from proctors, meaning that everything is running smoothly. “Thank goodness,” I tell myself. “Only two and half more hours to go.” Then I get a text from Susanne. “Looks like there is a problem with question 19. Answers A and C are identical.” Damn it. That’s one of my questions. How did I miss this?

9:45 a.m. Now I’m texting Susanne. “I think you did the math wrong on question 38.” “Alright,” she replies, “get the proctors to write a note on the board letting the students know that 38 is a gimme.”

10:15 a.m. Susanne and I cross paths as we each make our way across campus. Like two comrades in arms, we exchange stories from the trenches. “I don’t know why,” she says, “but no one can understand question 36.” “Tell me about it,” I say. “And the students in one room kept asking me about question 24. They don’t understand the figure.” We quickly part ways proclaiming that we’ll both need a lot of hard liquor to undo the damage done by this morning.

10:30–10:45 a.m. The final half of the exam is usually the most trying for both the students and the professors. In each of the exam rooms I’m bombarded with questions that for the most part I cannot answer:

“Sir, what exactly do you mean by …”
“I mean exactly that.”

“Sir, I don’t think there is a correct answer to this question.”
“I can assure you that there is.”

“Sir, I’ve narrowed it down to C or D.”

Asking questions is addictive and, as the clock ticks on, hands are popping up everywhere. I need to get out of here. I need to get some fresh air, some food, and some peace and quiet. I then remind myself that the students are feeling the exact same way.

12 p.m. Please put down your pencils and stop writing.

12:05 p.m. There is a chaotic mixture of emotions in the hallways outside the exam rooms. I discreetly stand among the students and listen to their conversations. They are debating their answers, picking apart each question. One student wants to high-five me, whereas another wants to have a heated chat about the exam content. A young man exclaims that he’s going to the campus pub to celebrate. A young woman sits on the floor and quietly talks on her phone as tears run down her face.

12:15 p.m. Susanne and I are in a classroom helping the proctors alphabetically sort exams and answer sheets. On the front page of the exam booklet there is a small section for comments. We will read through these carefully in the coming days. But for now I just skim over them. Some are constructive, pointing out genuine flaws with the exam. Others are cruel:

“Learn how to spell.”

“Worst exam ever!!!”

“Thanks for ruining my dreams.”

And some are funny:

“This is the first time in my life when thinking induced a headache and made me nauseous.”

“Looking forward to taking your course again next year.”

1 p.m. Before parting, Susanne and I share in the knowledge that we’ve survived yet another round. I make a promise that when I get home I’m not going to check my email. The dozens of letters from students can wait until Monday morning, when we’ve all partially recovered from the ordeal.

 David Smith is an assistant professor in Biology. Find him online at and @arrogantgenome. This article irst appeared in University Affairs magazine.