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20 February 2009

Preparing for the Trimester Exam

It’s nearly trimester exam time! In AP physics, my 2-hour trimester exam will consist of 23 multiple choice questions in 30 minutes, followed by a full-length 90-minute free response section consisting of authentic AP exam questions. The general physics exam is an eight question free response test designed to be 2 hours long (but I allow three hours for everyone). The exams will, of course, cover everything we have discussed all year.

(Students always wonder if the exam will be cumulative… why wouldn’t it be? Why did I bother to teach back in October if you’re just allowed to forget what I taught you? Are you saying that the material I taught isn’t worth remembering? And in AP physics, the May AP exam is cumulative, so I would be doing you a disservice if every test were not cumulative. Now quit asking silly questions.)

With the exam upcoming, prepare for a series of posts about exams. Today, I discuss exam “review.”

I refuse to enter into conversations about what specifically will be on the exam, or to run a “review session.” If I’ve been doing my job, and if students have been paying attention, then exam preparation should be nothing special. Daily homework, quizzes, and discussion are exam review.

Woodberry holds a “consultation day” before each exam period, during which teachers hold court in their classrooms, and students can visit whomever they want to ask questions. I don’t want consultation day to degenerate into “so, want to tell me what’s on the exam?” But I want to encourage my students to stop by. I dangle bait for my class in the form of extra credit.

Yesterday I distributed a sheet with 20-30 multiple choice questions (a different sheet to AP physics and general physics, of course). The extra credit assignment is to do these questions if they were a test – no books, notes, or collaboration. Then, on Sunday’s consultation day, they can come to my classroom to scan their answer sheet. Showing up on Sunday is the first requirement for extra credit.

The second requirement is corrections. For each question they missed, they must explain how to get the correct answer. Corrections must be done on the sheet displayed to the right. (I hope the quality is good enough to read... if you want a ms word version of the sheet, email me.) The standard of evidence for the correction is high – if they don’t thoroughly convince me that they understand the problem, they don’t get credit. The corrections are not due until next Thursday’s exam; but, since collaboration is allowed and encouraged on the corrections, most students stick around on consultation day because so many folks are around to discuss the problems and to help each other out.

Students appreciate my approach, and not just because they get extra credit. Think about how your students will prepare for a physics exam. OCD-style students might think that they must study for hours… and those hours are too often unproductive. Lazy students might not normally prepare at all. But the extra credit multiple choice assignment helps both of these student phenotypes. The exercise helps the OCD folks focus their studying, so that either (a) the questions they missed inform them about what topics need special attention, or (b) they feel like they’ve studied, and so they don’t waste any more time preparing for the exam. As for the lazy folks, the extra credit might well lure them into doing something when they might otherwise have done nothing.

If nothing else, just getting my students physically in my and each others’ presence is a productive exercise, because conversations invariable turn to physics. Extra credit can be an amazing attractor. (I note that food often works as well. First trimester consultation day is well known as Nacho Day in the physics classroom. I sometimes wonder whether the ample supply of official Nacho Man Nachos or the extra credit does a better job of bringing in the sheaves.)

(Picture at the top courtesy of

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