Sunday, October 19, 2008

An Unexamined Life

On Friday I had my first exam here at Uppsala. I'm not ashamed to admit, I freaked out a little bit as this exam approached. I did this for a number of reasons:

  • The exams here are each 5 hours long. Of course, as my professor joked, "You have five hours to take the exam, but this exam isn't calibrated to take five hours. It's calibrated to take eight hours." I think that was joke, anyway.
  • The University expects that there will be a high failure rate for most exams. This is not as bad as it may at first seem, as you can retake a failed in the next exam period, and the one after that, and so on, until you finally pass it.
  • The classes are harder, and the exams are supposed to emphasize original thinking instead of just memorization.
  • As I've mentioned before, students have to sign up for the exam two weeks in advance—and that particular deadline passed me by unnoticed this period. Fortunately most of the students in this class also missed the deadline, so the professor went to some extra effort to ensure us all seats. Still, there was the possibility heading in that we would all get turned away.
  • Did I mention the "5 hours long" part?
So I wound up spending the better part of a week just prepping for this one exam. I reread all the material, went back over my notes, worked through the homework again, and then I took the four published previous exams for this same class. Basically, I think I studied more for this one test than I typically would for an entire finals week.

But by mid-day Friday I felt pretty prepared. The exam was scheduled to start at 2, and it's a 10 minute bike ride away, so at 1:25 I put on my coat, gathered all my pencils, and headed out to grab my bike. This is when I discovered that on the Swedish calendar, Friday the 17th is apparently cliché day: my front tire was completely flat. OK, good thing I had planned on getting there early. My two options were to take the bus or walk, but I've never walked to campus before and wasn't sure exactly how long it would take (although 30–40 minutes seems a pretty good estimate). So I ran back inside to check the bus schedule, and found that the next bus left my stop at 1:35. Current time: 1:30. Time to bus stop at a brisk walk: 5 minutes. Yipes!

Somewhat out of breath, I arrived at the bus stop three minutes later. The bus, naturally, was about three minutes late, so I could have taken my time. Nevertheless, at 1:38 it was pulling up, and I was pulling out my bus card… well, I would have been pulling out my bus card, if it was in my wallet, where it has been for most of the past nine months. Instead, nothing. What's more, as we had been strictly instructed to bring to the exam, "nothing with memory" (except our heads, presumably), my cell phone (the next preferred method of buying a bus ticket) was sitting on my desk at home. Good thing I grabbed that 100 SEK note on my way out the door!

The bus must have made up some time somewhere, because we pulled into the Botaniska stop right on schedule. I ran across the street and just managed to catch the next #3 towards Graneberg. Five minutes later it was pulling up in front of the Polacksbacken campus, and by 1:55 I was walking in to the Polacksbacken Skrivsal.

The exams are held in a dedicated building, which used to be the gymnasium for the Royal Upplands cavalry regiment back when Polacksbacken was their barracks. Now it's basically one big exam room (the picture above (borrowed from the University website) isn't actually the hall at Polacksbacken, but it's pretty darn close). The letters on the back wall correspond to the rows of desks, and each row corresponds to a class (so all of my fellow students from "Constraint Technology for Solving Combinatorial Problems" had to sit in row B, in between a couple of math classes).

As soon as I found a desk, a woman at the front of the hall stood up and started making a long statement in Swedish (about 10 minutes worth), which distinctly included the word "Constraint" in the middle, but I have no idea what she was saying because no English translation was forthcoming. She probably reiterated a lot of the things I'd already heard about the exams, such as the fact that once the exam begins, no one is allowed to leave for the first 30 minutes. This is because as soon as the first student gives up and leaves the hall, no more late arrivals will be admitted. I meant to see if anyone left at the half hour mark, but by then I was pretty thoroughly absorbed in the exam itself, so I have no idea.

Students are encouraged to bring food and drink, and I honestly don't think there was a single Swedish student in the room not accompanied by at least one sandwich. Personally, all I had was a diet Coke, but I don't like to eat when I'm stressing, so that was plenty. Obviously there's no leaving the building for a toilet break, but there are three little single toilet rest rooms right up at the front of the test hall. There's even a red light on the wall over them, which switches on when all three are in use, so you don't have to waste your time standing around waiting for a toilet. Smokers are not as lucky as drinkers, though—smoke breaks are outside the building, and you have to get a proctor to accompany you.

When not policing smoke breaks, the proctors mostly stalked menacingly up and down the aisles. A couple of times one of them made an announcement over the PA (I'm pretty sure one of these was an attempt to explain the red light system). Also, each professor giving an exam is required to drop by for an hour so that they can answer any questions you may have.

As for the exam itself, there were five questions of varying lengths. After reading all the way through once, I decided to just start at the beginning and work my way through. I felt pretty good on finishing the second question, until I noticed that the time was 3:30. "Not calibrated to take 5 hours," indeed. The third question took the longest, and my answer covered both sides of two pieces of A4, at which point my hand was starting to hurt. Question 4 was OK if I understood it correctly, and question 5 I was only able to answer by violating the guidelines laid out in the problem description, so I guess we'll see how partial credit works on that one. In the end I wound up staying until 6:45, and while I wasn't keeping strict tabs on my whole class, I think I was only the third person out of 25 or so to leave.

Now there's just one more week to go until the end of the period. Until then, it's project time!

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