Let the Exams Come

Really. With five days left before the first exam and 12 before the last, I am again at the point where I feel things might as well start, so we can get them over with. Any further benefit gained by more preparation can only be marginal. True, you can always practice things more and thus feel more secure and be faster in the actual exam, but right now I am already growing tired of repeating the same old flashcards and doing the same old recurrence equations etc. over and over. In fact, my greatest worry right now is that I might get sick before the exams. I have started being constantly somewhat excited, at least subconsciously, and I am not sleeping well any more. And this can only get worse the closer the exams are. Given a chance, I think I would rather write the first one today, and I don’t even care much which one.

We had a final exam preparation session with our operating systems professor, one week shy of the actual exam next Wednesday, and unbelievably he still didn’t have any idea how the exam will look like. By now I no longer care though, because knowing wouldn’t make any difference any more. He did take suggestions as to things that should not figure prominently in the exam, and we begged to be excused from knowing details about PCI busses (in fact I don’t have the first idea what these even are) and from doing Java programming on paper, and a few other things.

There was a curious last minute debate on whether we should be allowed to bring a crib. I am rather in favor of cribs, because they force you to work through the lecture material and extract the essentials, but to do that you have to know early in the term. By now I have my 300 flash cards for operating systems memorized, more or less, and at best a crib can be a backup for the couple of things I still have problems with.

In the end our professor authorized a two-page crib, in spite of his misgivings about the rather unlikely scenario that with a crib a student of philosophy, or history, might conceivably pass the operating systems exam. Leaving aside the question why s/he would want to do that, and how s/he would pass the bureaucratic hurdles of admission and identification, our professor has repeatedly emphasized that his exams are about understanding and problem solving rather than knowledge reproduction. So how would anybody ever pass the exam without having understood the contents of the lecture?

And the professor insisted that the crib must be hand-written. That was a new one for me. In nine exams so far in which we could bring a crib at all, the lecturers either allowed them to be computer-typed in the first place, or at least yielded when I suggested that a hand-typed crib serves quite the same end as a hand-written one. For me, the purpose of a crib is didactic in any case–for the students to work through the contents of the lecture–and the idea that the motoric act of hand-writing is necessary for that work to be effective seems rather far-fetched in these days of universal everyday computer usage. As for the danger that a student might share his digital crib, you can quite as easily scan or xerox a hand-written sheet. Besides, any student who uses a crib other than his own is, in my considered opinion, a moron.

Truth told, I believe I was a minute away from convincing the operating systems professor of this position as well, but for a student from a higher semester who turned against me, suggesting that I was asking for a special treatment, and claiming she had never yet been allowed to bring a crib other than a hand-written one. Sour grapes, I believe. The funny fact is that for me it doesn’t make any difference anyway by now. But what I did find irritating was her unprecedented siding with the professor against other students, for no obvious purpose. It’s not as if she had any disadvantage by our being allowed a digital crib. She did get her share of disapproving noises, but the professor jumped at the chance to reinforce his position and refused my request. On second thought it occurred to me that this student had probably just never experienced a tight-knit solidaric community like our core group of about 15 people who started together three terms ago. If all you ever knew in your study program is dog-eat-dog, than turning against other students, even over a perceived disadvantage, must feel natural.

There was a final exercise session for graph theory yesterday, and I think finally understood a few things like graph grammars and graph morphisms I still felt insecure about so far. Our professor had another exercise sheet for us, but those of us who had used her Altklausuren to prepare already had done most of the problems, because of course she is recycling them. Graph theory is a big field, but in the end there is only so many types of different problems, and she has been doing this for many years.

Unexpectedly she was a bit surprised by our knowing her Altklausuren, and mused that this meant she would have to split her supply of exam problems into those for exercise and those for actual exams. After so many years, I wonder, how could she have missed that there is not just a physical collection of Altklausuren maintained by the student representatives bureau (and has been for over 20 years), but also a website with scans? I thought this was common knowledge. And was our telling her a slip of the tongue by which we spoiled our chance of getting a few exams problems we have already solved? Well, water beneath the bridge by now. Besides, unlike the OS professor she probably has her exam ready by now and won’t likely change it for the off-chance that some students might already have seen one or two of the problems. In Math 101, this happened to me, but even though I had done the problem and perused the solution two days before the exam, I could not really remember the details.

Mostly we are doing exercises for algorithms now, the exam right after operating systems, a week from now. There, as I said, we have no Altklausuren with solutions, so we are doing them as a group so we can compare. At the moment I feel I can cope with the standard problems, such as analysing algorithms, solving recurrences (though I still manage to forget to substitute for all occurrences of a variable), hashing, building binary search trees and such, and that will likely suffice for getting at least a B. But the more involved hobby-horses of our professor, such as has Markov chains and waiting systems, might well account for a fourth or so of the exam, and those things are not only highly complex but also rather hard to practice, for lack of problems. We did a rather laboured example of computing a equilibrium distribution for a population of penguins who could either be healthy, sick, or dead, but not only was it inherently illogical for a Markov chain (what is the chance that a dead penguin becomes either healthy or sick?), but also solving the resulting linear equation system with decimal fractions completely derailed three of the five in our group, including me.

Oh well. You see, I just killed an hour of my precious studying time. It’s the procrastination phase, again.


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