Making exams easier on my knees

If you’re an engineering student, you’ll probably have to write more more than a few exams at the Mattamy Centre, and you’ll know what it’s like having to find your seat in the long rows of tables and chairs set up for exams down there.

You’re not the only ones who have it bad. Instructors and invigilators are not especially fond of Mattamy either. One of the biggest reasons why it seems to be so universally despised is the long, skinny rows of assigned seating. This arrangement requires us to run back and forth over unnecessarily long distances to answer questions and generally manage our exams.

As a “design guy,” it struck me some time ago that there really needs to be a better way to lay out the regions of the Mattamy Centre, where by “better” I mean easier on the feet, legs, and lower backs of the instructors and invigilators. Basically, what I want is a space where (a) my students are close together without being too close, but (b) minimizes the amount of walking/jogging/running I have to do to get from one end of my section to the other.

It turns out this is a not-so-simple maths problem, but one that has been solved. And lo! it is true that square-ish sections are better than long skinny ones.

I’ll spare you the ugly maths and just give you some sample results based on normalized distances such that the distance between any two neighboring students is 1 “unit,” and assuming each row is about 30 students deep (which it seems to be at Mattamy).

For a class of 60-ish students, you’ll need 2 rows of standard seating; this will result in an average travel distance of about 7 units (i.e., 7 times the distance from one desk to the next). If, however, you pack your students into an 8×8 grid, then you’re average travel distance will be only about 3.5 units. You’ll walk only half as far during your exam to answer the same number of questions from randomly distributed students in that area. This is a huge savings!

Since the row size is fixed, as your class size grows, the shape of the area taken up will start to approximate a square, and so one would expect the savings to decrease. Indeed, for a class of around 150 students (like my drafting class), the savings is less than 30%, but that would still be very noticeable to my knees and back!

So, here’s the deal: Ryerson needs to get its act together and figure out how to configure Mattamy as a collection of square blocks instead of long skinny rows. There are three parts to this.

First, they need to devise a way to “fit” square blocks together to make sufficient space in the Mattamy hall for all the exams. This will not be very difficult because we don’t even use all the space that’s in that hall. What’s more, we have many professors with expertise in geometry, graph theory, topology, and computer science; it will be trivial to gather a small team and give them a bit of funding to develop a nice, efficient algorithm that takes class sizes and develops the layouts of variously sized square regions in the MTCC hall. Indeed, the necessary algorithms may already exist! It might even make a great student project in computer science.

Second, the need to tweak the software that assigns students to desks so that the students are assigned to the square blocks rather than long narrow row-based regions. Given that one will already know the topology of the spaces involved (from the algorithm mentioned above), this step will definitely be trivial.

Third – and this is IMHO both the most interesting and difficult part – they need to design a way-finding system so that (a) students can easily find their way to their places in the new square-based system, and (b) instructors and invigilators can easily tell where the borders are between their exams and any other exam groups sharing boundaries with theirs. Part (b) will be the trickiest – one can easily imagine instructors being called to desks of students who are just outside their exam’s square-bounded region. The system must be such that any instructor or invigilator can easily figure out where the bounds of their exam area are, yet be highly and quickly reconfigurable as there can be three or more exam sessions per day.

I think an excellent contender for a way-finding solution will be to have something like traffic pylons, only taller, that can be easily moved and positioned at the corners of each square exam area. I will probably assign this as a design project in one of my classes and see what the students can do with it.

I already know the first counter-argument that The Establishment will raise: the system we have works, so there’s no reason to change. That’s bollocks. It doesn’t work because, as I’ve shown above, instructors and invigilators are walking unnecessarily far and therefore working in an unnecessarily stressful environment. Yes, the current system works; but it works poorly. And that should not be acceptable.

I already know the second counter-argument that The Establishment will raise: your idea will cost too much. They won’t quantify their argument; they will instead resort to an argument by authority – Our vast experience and deep wisdom tells us, they will say, that your way will cost too much. Of course, it will cost more – in dollars – but it will save costs in terms of the grief and repetitive strain exposures to which instructors and invigilators will no longer be exposed. These are benefits that the bean counters never consider, because the system in which they are immersed is rigged to treat us like drones.

Of course, it may well be that there are problems with my proposal, problems that proper analysis will highlight and that may well be insurmountable. But we won’t find them just listening to the bean counters. We will have to actually run the numbers, do the analysis, and consider the possibility. If the evidence is such that my proposal won’t work, then fine. But until then, I will maintain that my proposal is better than then way things are.

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