Last Tuesday morning I actually took my Ryerson ID card, sharpened pencils, and favourite eraser into the Kerr Hall gym and sat at a table in the middle of about 500 students at 8 am. and wrote a 3 hour final exam in Organic Chemistry. I now wish I had arranged for someone to take a picture from the balcony just to have the photo evidence. To give you an idea of what it was like here is a picture of a final exam in the gym at the University of Guelph from around the same time as I was an undergraduate student there.
When I started this experience in September I was nervous that I would be completely lost in this class and embarrass myself with my inability to understand any of the content. It turns out I had no reason to be nervous, but I did take it very seriously and worked hard to understand the material as well as I could. Over the course of the semester I wrote 10 in class quizzes and achieved grades on these quizzes ranging from 53% to 100%. Since the professor uses only the best 7 of the 10 quizzes in calculating the final grade I had 81.2% going into the final exam. I actually thought I might be able to “get an A” in this course. I am pretty good at memorizing and was able memorize most of the reactions and reagents required. For example KotBu in a polar aprotic solvent with the application of heat turns a leaving group like bromine into an alkene in the least stable position. I doubt I will ever forget this. Seriously.
But something happened in the last weeks of the course. Something that I expect happens to many students. I ran out of time. I simply ran out. As I sat the night before the final exam, which I discovered a few days before was actually a full day earlier then I thought it was, I realized that even if I stayed up all night I was not going to be able to learn and memorize everything I had left to learn and memorize to get an A.
How many of our students hand in a final assignment, or write a final exam and know without hesitation that they are capable of doing better…if they only had more time? The academic calendar at Ryerson, like many universities, is set up so that each semester students must learn the material and do the assignments for each course in 12 – 13 weeks before moving on to the next set of courses. This semester I could have started prepping for the first quiz sooner, I could have attended more help sessions, I could have worked harder, I could have done lots of things but in the end I would still have run out of time. I doubt that many students complete their semester and think…I gave my very best work, I had lots of time to show what I am capable of, and I learned every bit of course content completely.
I guess this time pressure and the need to manage multiple priorities is a good preparation for what many will face in their careers. I certainly have to deal with multiple demands, high expectations of others, and intense time pressures every day in my work. Every experience our students are having is preparing them for what comes next and helping them build skills. Even now in my work running out of time and knowing I could have done better or done more with more time is still a big frustration.
I loved my experience in this course. I loved learning that I can still learn something new and very different by applying myself. I loved being able to text my nephew, who is in third year chemistry at another university, for help. I didn’t meet and get to know as many students as I would have liked, but I still have a semester to go, engaging in activities with science students, so hopefully that will change. I did not have to remember back to my student experience to have empathy for the stress our students feel when faced with a challenging course, or when they are struggling to understand something new, especially in the last weeks of the semester. I got to have a very real visceral taste of that stress and anxiety. Although in the end it really does not matter what grade I get, I did truly try my very best to do my very best. But I ran out of time. I just ran out of time.