This morning I awoke from a nightmare. No, it wasn’t one of those all too frequent Vietnam War combat nightmares. It was far worse. I was back in school. I was taking a math test, but I had no paper or pencil, and the problems were being flashed briefly on a screen in the front of the room. I could not get the teacher to stop the test until I could get a pencil and paper. The other students seemed to have no problem continuing.
This type of nightmare was depicted beautifully by Val Kilmer in the comedy film “Top Secret.” In a dream sequence, he is running wildly through the hall of his school when he encounters a fellow student. He asks desperately where the chemistry final exam is being held. The student tells him that all of the exams are over. Val cries, “Oh No! I haven’t studied. I’m back in school!” At this point, he awakens to find that he is being whipped and beaten by mindless Nazi-like guards. He says, “Thank God!” I think we all would have a response similar to that of Val in this situation.
In my senior year at Duke, I did something that must now give over one hundred of my fellow students similar nightmares.
Enrolled in a graduate level experimental psychology course with Dr. Greg Smith, a respected researcher and textbook author in the 1960s, I had devised an experiment to determine the effect on students’ scores of different methods of administering exams. My subjects were introductory psychology students who were required to participate in a certain number of these experiments for course credit.
The experiment involved groups of students taking what was purported to be an intelligence test. I had cut and pasted segments of various aptitude and intelligence tests into about a one hour exam. I administered the exam in two different ways. One group was given “hard” instructions and one was given “easy” instructions.
For the “hard” group, I wore a coat and tie and remained standing during the very formal instructions. I was very stern and unsmiling. I had a stopwatch openly displayed. The students were told that this was an intelligence test divided into a certain number of sections. They were to put their names on the answer sheets. There was a strict time limit for each section. They had to put down their pencils when I said stop, and they were not allowed to go forward or back to other sections. I told them that the results of the test would become a part of their permanent record at the university and could affect their eligibility for acceptance into certain advanced courses. As a kicker, I said, “Since you will want to know how you did on the exam, your individual scores will be posted by your names on the bulletin board in the Student Union.”
For the “easy” group, I was dressed very casually, and I was seated with my feet propped up on the desk as they came into the classroom. I smiled and greeted students cordially. The students were instructed in a very relaxed manner that this was just a general test of student abilities much like tests they had taken previously, only these results would be anonymous. They were not to put their names on anything, just indicate male or female. I indicated that, although the test would be roughly timed, the goal was just to see how the average student did on the test. There would be no way of knowing who took each test so no individual results would be published, nor would results have any effect on them, personally.
I had hypothesized that the “hard” group test takers would perform better, for they had a real incentive to perform. Indeed, there was no real incentive for “easy” test takers to put any effort at all into the test. In fact, the “hard” test takers did perform slightly better, but the difference was not statistically significant. The only statistically significant result was that the women did better than the men. The reason for this was that Duke at the time was the best coed school in the country. Only one out of every forty-five women who applied to Duke was accepted. One out of nine men who applied was accepted. The women were a much more highly select group, and let’s face it – they were smarter. I remember one girl, in particular. She was a strikingly beautiful blonde “hard” group member who had a nearly perfect score. Who says blondes are dumb?
The most interesting result of the experiment was that the scores of the “hard” group were more variable. Though the mean scores were similar, the “hard” group bell curve was flatter and extended farther in each direction. The bell curve of the “easy” test takers was tall and narrow. The top scorers of the “hard” group scored higher than the top scorers of the “easy” group, but the poorest scorers of the “hard” group did worse than the poor scorers of the “easy” group. This indicated to me that, while some students were more motivated to do well under tough circumstances, others simply choked up and did poorly.
I suspect that my “hard” instruction students have nightmares caused by my mean, unyielding performance as the proctor of that exam. If I have such nightmares from time to time, I confess, it is deservedly so. I have it coming!