Saturday, October 11, 2008

physics exam

The night of the exam, I arrived half an hour early.  While I’d planned on poring through the book, trying to absorb one or two more nuggets before go time, my heart was beating so fast that the words were impossible to read.  I was as ready as I was going to get.

Just before the exams were handed out, I put away my book and notes and took out several mechanical pencils, a graphing calculator and my 3 by 5 inch note card containing every possible useful formula in the tiniest print I could legibly produce.

As soon as we were allowed to start, I flipped through the test packet, looking for an easy question to give me a confidence boost. Our hero went through all 20 problems without finding a single gimme. Four of the questions were so foreign that they might as well have been asking me about Sumerian philosophers.

As I struggled to figure out which formulas applied, I couldn’t help but curse myself for wasting a week on this crap. Frequently the result displayed on my graphing calculator wasn’t anywhere close to any of the potential choices – sometimes by a factor of a hundred. My only solace was that since the exam was multiple choice, none of my incorrect answers would be so outlandish that Dr. Wiley would feel the need to pin them to his fridge and laugh at my stupidity each day as he made breakfast.

Walking home from the exam, I faced a harsh reality. Our hero wasn’t cut out to be an engineer – at least not at The University of Great Lakes. At best, maybe I’d gotten lucky on a few questions and wound up in the D range, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up getting more than half of the problems wrong. My only hope for a decent grade was if there was any truth to the old adage about ‘c’ being the most likely answer on a multiple-choice test. On the four “Sumerian philosopher” questions, I’d circled ‘c’ and hoped for the best.

A week later, I received the bad news at the beginning of physics lecture: 65%. The most disturbing part of my score was that it could’ve been a lot worse. I’d been correct three of the four times I’d blindly picked ‘c’.

A lump formed in my throat. While I’d expected that college would be tough, I never imagined that it’d be so relentless that I’d work my butt off and fail. Our hero considered leaving the lecture, throwing my test in the trash and dropping physics. Would I retake it again the following year? Maybe I should drop out altogether and join the Peace Corps or live on a farm until I found something I was good at.

Before I had a chance to get up, Dr. Wiley turned on the slide projector. On the screen was a picture of a bell-curve showing an average of 41.2%. According to Dr. Wiley’s scale, my dismal 65% was an A. He said that a number of people had sent him emails complaining about the difficulty of the exam. It may have been tough, but it was clearly a fair test because the scores lined up with a normalized distribution.

How did a bell-curve make it okay to fail an exam? What about learning the material? I still sucked at it. Did it not matter how well I understood the concepts, but rather how well I matched up against my peers? All that separated me from the center of that curve was my faith in the letter ‘c’ – without its help, I would’ve gotten a 50%.

Once you accounted for the mean, I’d aced the exam. Still, was I actually supposed to feel good about my score? College was shaping up to be an awfully strange time.

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