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Academic Distractions, Demolished!

, , , , , , | Learning | November 17, 2021

I have ADD and am relatively smart. This combination can be difficult, because the symptoms for ADD and the symptoms for a smart child who finds school boring and not challenging enough are very similar, and they exacerbate each other.

As a young child in elementary school, I particularly hated tests because they never challenged me, but they did require me to sit still working on them for an entire class. With other assignments, I usually finished them early and got to read a book, and with lectures, if I was bored, I could disengage and start daydreaming; I was very good at living inside my own head. But tests needed just enough attention that I couldn’t start daydreaming, but they were not interesting enough to hyperfocus on, resulting in being the most boring task in school to me. 

To make tests a bit more tolerable, I tried turning them into a game. I had all kinds of rules as to how questions should be answered and the order I did them in, and I even kept “score” of how well I was sticking to the rules. It’s been too long for me to remember all the rules, but the result was that I skipped around the test answering questions in seemingly random order while tracking points on the side of the paper in a way that I’m sure looked a little crazy to an outside observer, but it made things at least a little more interesting to me.

We ended up having a substitute teacher one day when we had a test. A little after the test, she came up to me while I was reading a book; I’d finished the assignment ahead of time and had free time. She originally started talking about my book and the fact that it was a few reading levels above my grade before transitioning to talking about the test.

Substitute: “I noticed you were moving around a lot during the tests.”

I felt a little embarrassed at being “caught” at what I realized was a pretty silly game, but I tried to act as if it was normal.

Me: “Yeah, I do that sometimes.”

Substitute: “Why did you do it?”

Me: “It’s kind of like a game to make the test more interesting. I know it’s silly—”

Substitute: “Oh, no, there is nothing wrong about it. I was just curious. You reminded me a bit of my daughter.”

Me: “Oh?”

Substitute: “She’s smart and likes reading like you, too. But she used to drive us crazy; whenever she had a test, she would sit and try to read her book without even looking at the test for the first half of class before she would start it, and she wouldn’t tell us why she did it!”

Me: “Oh, yeah, I could see doing that.”

Now the substitute sounded surprised that I didn’t think that was odd.

Substitute: “What? That makes sense to you?”

Me: “I assume the test was too easy, so she wanted to make it more challenging by needing to rush to complete it in time. It would be kind of fun, but my dad would be mad at me if I tried it.”

Substitute: “Wow. I wish I had you around a few years ago to explain that to us! We had to take her to a fancy psychiatrist just to figure out what she was doing.”

It was a random little conversation, but it’s stuck in my head for decades because it was the first time that it really occurred to me that my brain and my ways of doing things were just a bit different from how “normal” folks did it. The fact that something as “obvious” as the substitute’s daughter’s motivations wouldn’t make sense to a “normal” person made me realize that I, and presumably the substitute’s daughter, might just see the world a bit differently than most did.

Luckily for me, I didn’t necessarily mind being different, so it wasn’t a bad memory. Over the years, I’ve actually grown increasingly happy that I’m a bit odd. I see so many people doing downright foolish things in the effort to seem normal that I’m kind of glad I’m not normal and peer pressure doesn’t tempt me to join in with the foolishness just to fit in. Still, this was the first time it really clicked in my head that my mind really doesn’t work quite the way others’ do.

A Riveting Historical Account

, , , , , | Learning | October 18, 2021

This story happened to my wife when she was taking an oral exam at university. The subject in question was the early modern period — about 1450 to 1800. The professor in question was a kindly old man, the gentle grandfather type. The setting in question was a stuffy room in a concrete brutalist building on a warm day in June.

My wife had to give an overview of the English monarchy in the early modern period, which is a pretty daunting question. She started with the Wars of the Roses, Henry VIII, etc. Meanwhile, the professor was listening with his eyes closed, nodding and murmuring agreement.

After my wife got to the English Civil War, she was struggling to recount more and ended her answer by telling the professor that this was about all she knew, silently hoping it would be enough to pass the exam. To her horror, there came no reply from the other side of the desk, only an old professor with his eyes closed, silent.

She coughed and got a soft snoring sound as a reply. She turned around to the other students in the room that were preparing their exams, but all the help she got was some muffled laughs.

My wife coughed again and scraped her chair across the floor until the old guy opened his eyes, saying, “Yes, miss, what you told me about the House of Hannover is correct.” My wife said her goodbyes and left the room, baffled.

She passed her exam, so whatever she was saying until the professor fell asleep made enough sense that he finished replying to his own question in his head.

Even Chris Griffin Isn’t That Stupid

, , , , , | Learning | September 26, 2021

It’s the first day of classes, so we’re going over the syllabus.

Professor: “Now, here are my rules on using technology in class. I don’t mind y’all taking notes or whatever digitally as long as that’s actually what you’re doing and you aren’t being a distraction. A couple of years back, I caught one guy on his phone during an exam. The weird part was that he wasn’t even cheating. He was watching Family Guy! Good lord, can you imagine watching a TV show on your phone during an exam?! Or sitting next to someone that is?! Don’t be that guy, please.”

No Buying Your Way Out Of This One

, , , , , , , | Learning | August 20, 2021

[Student] is in our engineering course. He doesn’t listen to anything the lecturer says, doesn’t make notes, and is often late. Halfway through the year, he brags that he hasn’t done a single assignment himself. He either paid someone to write them or bought them online.

As someone who struggles daily, this infuriates me. Just because he has money, why should he have the easy life?!

After another bragging session a few weeks on, I speak to my professor, who tells me sadly that if there is no proof and the plagiarism isn’t evident, they can’t do anything about it. But “these people never get far.”

I take that as some meaningless platitude and try my best to avoid [Student] altogether.

The rest of the year, I struggle through the course getting average marks. [Student] gets 100% every time. Right at the end of the academic year, this happens:

Lecturer: “Good news, everyone! We have decided to scrap the last assignment.”

Cheers come from the class.

Lecturer: “But we will be having a test, instead.”

Cue lots of groans.

Lecturer: “Don’t worry. We devised a special one, just for this class.”

We all crammed like crazy. [Student] was particularly panicking. When we got to the test, it was incredibly easy, with basic answers from the coursework, just simple understanding questions. Everyone finished it in minutes… all apart from [Student].

He got a redo, failed, then had a retest date, and he failed that, too. He couldn’t pass without the exam and ended up repeating the whole year.


This story is part of our Best Of August 2021 roundup!

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Practice Taking What You Can Get

, , , , , | Learning | July 12, 2021

At the university where I work, I teach a library research methods course. Since the final exam is a skills test, I prepare a take-home practice exam with different questions that cover the same techniques as the final. If the students can work out the answers to the practice test, they should do well on the final.

Two students approach me.

Student: “We want to leave a couple of days before the final. Could we take it early?”

Me: “You can’t take the final itself, since you could potentially pass the questions on to other students, but I’ll let you take the practice exam in class the day before everyone else gets it, and I’ll grade you on that.”

Student: “But that’s not fair! We should get a practice exam, too.”

Me: “Let me get this straight. As a favor, I am letting you take the exam two days early, but you also want me to create an extra practice exam just for you two?”

Student: “Yes?”

Me: “No.”