This weekend, I had the unique opportunity to proctor an exam. Now, for the sake of security and keeping my butt out of hot water, I won’t mention the exam or the organization that gave it. But I think you’d know it if I mentioned it…
I was contacted via e-mail and informed that there was an opportunity. I jumped at the chance, seeing as how I was usually the person on the other side of the test. I figured that volunteering would give me some insight into the whole testing process that up until now I have not had exposure to. When I got the affirmative response to my proctoring request, I busied myself scowling into the mirror and giving my best “I’m not allowed to answer that” growl. Strangely enough, there wasn’t a whole lot of direction about what to do to prep myself for the examination. I figured at the very least I’d get a quick reading list, or a group of topics to brush up on just in case.
Test day began early. The candidates were told to report at 8:00, so I needed to be on site no later than 7:00. When I arrived, I met the lead proctor as well as the other two people assisting me in my ‘testing police’ role. We cracked open the shipped materials and began separating everything out. Yes, for those of you not familiar with the way the world works, there are still some tests out there that are given with a booklet and a #2 pencil. We made sure we had enough exam booklets plus extra, just in case. We filled out all the requisite paperwork and arranged the room so as to maximize the separation of the candidates and our ability to rush down the aisle and dispense justice should we need to.
Just before the scheduled check-in time, I stepped out of the room to use the restroom. In the hallway outside the room, I saw the assembled candidates sitting around in chairs with a very familiar look on their faces. I recognized it from my (many) trips to Building C in San Jose. The intensely focused concentration of a person going over every last question in their head, ready for anything. People telling themselves silently that they are ready. Those trying not to be nervous about what was coming in a few short minutes. I remember the look, but this was my first time being the cause of it instead of sharing it with my fellow candidates.
At 8:00 registration opened. We had to verify the candidate with a photo ID, a note from their 3rd grade teacher, and a DNA sample. Okay, maybe just the photo ID. Once identified, we escorted the candidate to their assigned seat. It felt a little silly assigning them seats like this was middle school science class, but the rules said we had to. Once we had checked in all the candidates, we started the whole process by reading the script. Unlike the fine proctors at the CCIE lab, this exam required us to read from a prepared script. In fact, there was a note at the beginning that cautioned us NOT to deviate or change words. I remembered Proctor Raymond’s well-rehearsed speech from last month. Not rehearsed because he was reading from prepared material, but instead because of the number of times he had given it. It felt more organic, more connected. But, as the script droned on, I stood beside the lead proctor and tried to look menacing. Which probably came across as comical for the candidates.
Once all the administrativa was taken care of, we noted the time on a whiteboard as there was no clock in the room. That was a little strange to me, as most every testing center I’ve ever been to has a clock situated just above eye level. And so we were off. And that’s when the fun really started:
1. I was not allowed to clarify the questions. At all. This was the strangest part to me. I was familiar with the now-famous “help” the CCIE proctors provide. Which, I will tell you, is light years better than the help I was allowed to provide. No clarification of the question. No word definitions. No help of any kind whatsoever. I know that I’ve bothered the proctors enough in my lab attempts with what were probably pedantic or pointless questions. But to the proctor’s credit, they helped me each and every time as much as possible. Clarification and opinion were helpful in allowing me to figure out the question. For my own proctor experience? My only answer was “Let me get the comment form.” I was divorced from the process totally. While I can understand why I wasn’t allowed to help (my total inability to confidently answer questions based on the exam’s content), it made me feel a little helpless. Especially when a candidate asked me anyway. I felt like a bit of a heel. I was also not allowed to directly confront anyone that I thought might be cheating or disrupting the test. Instead, I was to write down the time and the candidate that was being disruptive or suspicious and send it off with the test materials. I felt more like a hall monitor than anything else. Not allowed to do anything other that write down everything I saw and turn it in for someone else to worry about.
2. Bathroom escort engineer. So what did I do with my time? Take people to the bathroom. In the CCIE lab, there is a visitor name badge especially for the lab. When you need to relieve the pressure, you grab the name badge off the hook and step across the hall. You need the badge to get back in the lab, and in this manner it limits the number of people that can be out of the room at any one time. I usually that the opportunity to run down the hall and grab 12 more ounces of caffeinated sugary goodness. In my proctor exam? One person out at a time. And I had to walk them to the bathroom. Thankfully I didn’t need to actually go inside, but I wouldn’t put it past some people. As I marched people back and forth between the facilities, the nervous chatter was quite humorous. I know that I have a gift for pointless conversation, especially when I’m nervous or stressed. And apparently so did a couple of the candidates. I tried my best to keep up my calm demeanor and stone face, but I couldn’t help but feel for them. I’m sure they were trying to engage any kind of support or stress relief they could. I makes me realize now that the conversations that I have with the CCIE proctors at lunch are a godsend.
3. Staring contests. So, what is a person to do when they can’t comment on exam items and only really exist to provide safe passage to the water closet? You guess it: People Watching. A hobby of mine in social settings became my companion for the hours that dragged on during the test. I observed all manner of fun. The thinker pose. Quiet stretching after each exam section. Confused and concerned looks toward the ceiling, as if the answers would mysteriously appear in the tiles. It all became apparent to me as time wore on who was confident about their knowledge and ability in this test and who would probably be coming back for another try. The people who jumped right up after finishing all the questions, not taking time to change any answers because they were confident in their choices the first time. Contrast that to the people that were still furiously erasing with less than five minutes to go, studying the exam booklet as if it were the Rosetta Stone, attempting to glean a hint or clue as to the correct bubble to fill in for that particular line.
In the end, the exam ended with a whimper compared to the prep we did beforehand. As soon as all exams were turned in, they were loaded into a container for shipping to whatever dark and draconian organization would decipher the arrangement of completely darkened #2 pencil marks and pronounce judgement for this candidate as to whether they would be allowed to title themselves with the styling allowed by their studies and trials.
Me? I walked out with a new perspective on proctoring. I’ll probably put my name in the hat the next time the opportunity arises. I’ll spend less time scowling in the mirror in my imitation of what I thought a proctor should be like. And I’ll bring a notepad to jot down all my ideas. I’ll work on my stage whisper so heads don’t spin around when my voice starts carrying as I ask a fellow proctor about something. And, I’ll try not to get caught staring.
yeah, i know what exam your talking about! the several hundred row answer sheet still makes me shudder…and I passed almost three years ago. 🙂
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