When I was part of the Professional Development program at the University of Michigan, I would always give a short talk on the basics of proctoring exams. Here is the two word summary: Proctor aggressively. I would talk about changing location in the room periodically, making sure to watch them take the exam, things to watch out for, etc. We also discussed what to do if a student was cheating and all the other things that you would be bored to read about right now.

Back then, I'd been teaching for under ten years. It was easy enough for me to carefully watch students take an hour exam and to advise others to do so. But now? Now I've been teaching for a much longer time. I have watched students taking exams for over 400 hours of my life. Wait... can that number possibly be right? Hmmmm... Yes. Yes, that's an underestimate. Wow. 400 hours.

So when an instructor like me sits down to proctor, it is much harder to remain enthusiastic. ANOTHER hour? What to do? Can I read Ulysses? No, I can't read a novel, the students might cheat. Can I just leave the room and trust them? Ho ho ho. So what do I do? I use one of Doug's Advanced Proctoring Techniques!

Technique 1: Practice your psychic powers
Pick a student. Now try to make him itch. Focus on his nose and think at him, "You will itch... You will itch... You will itch..." If the student scratches, think how HAPPY you will be! If you can't make the student itch, it could be that he is resisting your psychic will. Try a different student, and perhaps try something simpler with her: "Fidget... fidget... fidget..." I've had good luck with: "Use your calculator... use your calculator... use your calculator..." It may take you some time to become a good psychic. So? When you are proctoring, a time shortage is not the problem.

Technique 2: The horse race
Someone is going to finish first. The question is... who? Mentally pick which students will finish first, second, and third. Oh the joy if you get the Trifecta! But the path is as fun as the destination. Watch them work... is your favorite on page six yet? Oh no! She is checking her answers while the dark-horse candidate is finishing page seven! So much fun to be had.

And also someone has to finish last. After you pick your three speediest students, also select who will be the last finisher, the penultimate, and the antepenultimate. What if the exam ends while more than three are still working? What the heck do you care? After the exam is over the game has done its job. Go home and start grading.

Technique 3: Who will die of the deadly disease?
You have an alphabetical list of your students in front of you, because you took roll at the beginning of the test (like a good proctor.) If you did not, shame on you, that's basic stuff. Taking roll prevents a student who was not at the exam claiming he was, or vice versa. I don't know why I just said "or vice versa." I didn't mean it, and it is actually false. I guess it just seemed like the thing to say. Sorry.

Anyway, you have that list in front of you, right? Well, I have some sad news for you. The first student on the list, Jack Aaaronson, is dying of a deadly disease! The only thing that is preventing him from dying right on the spot is your healing gaze. As long as he is in your vision, either direct or peripheral, he may live long enough to be cured. Yes, there is a cure. He can be cured by putting his pencil down (if he was holding it) or picking it up (if he was not) or by looking up. Unfortunately, the disease is very contagious. As soon as the first student is cured, the next student on the list, say Jane Aaronson, gets the disease! Save her! Can you get through the whole class before the test is over?

If a student finishes the test and gets up when she has the disease, the disease is cured and nobody dies. Yay.

Technique 4: The celebrity spawn
One of your students is actually the daughter or son of a famous person. You can tell because of the physical resemblance. Try to figure out who it is. The hunt can kill a good fifteen or twenty irreplaceable minutes of your life!

The Final Technique: Find the unicorn!
As is always the case for truly worthwhile things, you must prepare ahead of time to use this Advanced Proctoring Technique. You need to memorize the refrain to the Unicorn Song, performed by the Irish Rovers and written by Shel Silverstein. An .mp3 of the entire song can be obtained by right-clicking here, and a much shorter .mp3 of a version of the refrain can be gotten here, at least until I get a cease-and-desist order.

Now, start with the student in the front row on the left, and look at each student in turn, left to right, front to back. As you look at the student, sing the song to yourself:

While mentally singing:

You are looking at:

Hey Lord! I got your green alligators
And long necked geese
Some humpty-backed camels
And some chimpanzees
Some cats
and rats
and elephants, but Lord I'm so forlorn
I just can't see no Unicorn
Student #1
Student #2
Student #3
Student #4
Student #5
Student #6
Student #7
Student #8

Now the student you are looking at when you sing "I just can't see no Unicorn" is NOT the Unicorn, and is out of the game. Start with the next student (Student #9) and repeat the procedure, eliminating another suspect. When you loop around to the beginning, then make sure to SKIP all the eliminated players as you repeatedly go through the class. It is surprisingly easy to keep track of which students are eliminated, and which are not. And if you make a mistake, who really cares? But, just to be safe, you can always start over. When you have one student left, she or he is the Unicorn, and you can be happy that you know.

I'm at the point where I can find the Unicorn in a class of thirty students in about 15 minutes.

Do NOT try to save time by hurrying through the song, or (god forbid!) just counting to eight. Remember, we are not trying to save time when proctoring, we are trying to spend it.

So what if you, like me, get quick at this, Doctor Shaw's ultimate Advanced Proctoring technique? Well, you play again, varying the ordering of the students (right to left? down the columns? what a cornucopia of choice you have!) If you play repeatedly, eventually you will have someone picked as a Unicorn twice. This student is the UBER UNICORN. I have proctored three hour finals and never found an Uber-Unicorn. But, mathematically, there must be one. Can you find the Uber Unicorn? What joy in the hunt!

And always remember...

  1. It is not polite to giggle if someone picks their nose while you are watching them
  2. You should resist the temptation to give the Unicorn an automatic A
  3. You must only use your psychic powers for Good, never for Evil.

Respond via email
Back to Doug's Essays
Back to my personal page

© Douglas J. Shaw,  2002