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08 December 2009

Department of the Obvious: Test Corrections Work

Don't know whether you saw the December 2009 edition of The Physics Teacher. This generally excellent magazine has given me untold helpful hints, lab ideas, and physics concepts to think about in the context of teaching high school (and low undergraduate) physics. In fact, I have a co-written article being published in next month's edition, about the USAYPT, the organization that made the mistake of appointing me President. (Check us out at!)

This month in TPT, Charles Henderson and Kathleen Harper explain how they use "Assessment Corrections" as a teaching tool. Great idea, obviously. What bugs me about this article is not that I think they "stole" the idea of corrections from me. Of course they didn't. In fact, I "stole" the idea from Haverford professor Lyle Roelofs -- pictured above --  who inflicted test corrections on us in Advanced Quantum Physics in 1994.  He offered half credit back on the test if we corrected out mistakes.  A classmate astutely commented, "Lyle, you know we're going to do the corrections, because without them our grades are lousy, but with them the grades are good.  So even though corrections aren't required, you're insidiously getting us to do them."  Lyle just smiled.

Anyway.  What bugged me about the Henderson and Harper article was the conceit that they were determining, through the use of a scientifically valid theory, that assessment corrections are useful, and that corrections help students learn.  The article is full of phrases like "formative assessment"  and "metacognition."  AARRGH!  Look, readers, I don't care what your "theoretical basis for assessment corrections" is, or whether you even have one.  Does anyone ever ask Roger Federer for the "theoretical basis" for his forehand?  Does anyone ask Albert Pujols for the "theoretical basis" of his swing?  No, these folks just do what works.  They're probably happy to share what they know about what works for them, but what works for them may or may not work for another professional. 

Physics may be a peer reviewed science, but physics teaching is far, far closer to art than science.   Good artists may do things in a similar manner, but they don't need peer-reviewed, buzzword-filled evidence to know they're doing something right.  All anyone -- INCLUDING ME -- can tell you about a physics teaching method is, "it worked for me, it worked for lots of other people, here's how I do it, now try it if you'd like."

Test corrections work for me.  Test corrections apparently work for Mr. Henderson and Ms. Harper, too -- you can read the article for useful examples of how other teachers have made the corrections assignment.  Corrections worked for Lyle Roelofs.  They have worked for a number of attendees at my summer institutes.  They will probably work for you.

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