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10 June 2013

No "Mercy" -- train students to treat exams dispassionately

Saturday we finished grading all 100,000+ AP physics exams.  I was assigned throughout the week to two problems – B7, the one about atomic energy levels; and B4, the one about two blocks connected over a pulley that create projectile motion.  I feel like I’ve seen every available correct approach to these problems, as well as every possible misconception that our students have.

As you can probably imagine, a non-negligible number of exams were taken by students who were woefully unprepared.  We saw blank papers, and not just on question 7.  We read clever doodles, poems, messages, “Mr. Lipshutz should be fired,” “Thank you for grading my exam, hope you have a great day,” and, of course, the classic “Kick Mr. Kirby* in the butt for me.”

* Observed multiple times over the years at the reading:  “Hi, you’re Martin Kirby?”  “Yes, I’m Martin, nice to meet you.”  “Hey, could you turn around?  I have a message to deliver that one of your students wrote on his exam.”

I don’t mind all these.  If a student didn’t study appropriately all year, his punishment – or at least the natural consequence – is to sit still for three hours taking an exam he has no chance of passing.  If he wants to spend his time entertaining me, more power to him.

One of the things students write that most bothers me, though, is the serious or semi-serious plea for mercy.  “Please, I’ve worked hard all year, my teacher is new, I really want credit in college, have some mercy!  Give me some points, please!  We didn’t do a problem just like this in class, but I’m answering the best I can, be nice and give me a 3.”

What makes the plea for “mercy” bothersome, while I laugh respectfully at the animal drawings? 

Perhaps the principal battle that physics teachers must fight involves those students who don't adjust well to the unique nature of a physics course.  Students who have earned As throughout their school career because they can memorize and they have a big vocabulary often become frustrated by creative problem solving.  As they see they might not earn an A in physics, as they (think they) see their visions of being valedictorian of their Harvard Medical School class going up in smoke, they -- and their parents -- fight.  Such a student tends to use "compassion" and "mercy" as a weapon.  They attempt to portray the physics teacher as a mean person, hoping to pressure him or her to back off the course expectations.

This sort of smear campaign would be comical if it weren't so effective.  All it takes is one or two physics-ignorant teachers to champion such a student's cause; then even if the teacher stands her ground, a subset of students feels validated enough to persist in their hostile attitude, spreading their incompetence and despondence throughout the class.  And if the principal doesn't give an emphatic smack-down to the first whiny parent, the teacher is up a creek.  

I want to change the conversation everywhere, not just in physics.  An exam should be viewed as a dispassionate, objective evaluation of a student's skills.  Teachers do not "give" grades, students "earn" grades.  A score, good or bad, on a test doesn't reflect on the character of the teacher: a teacher is not "kind" if the class does well, a teacher is not "mean" if the class does poorly.  

Poor performance on an exam should be viewed like a loss at an athletic contest: it doesn't necessarily reflect on the character of the test taker, it's just an evaluation that "your team was not as good as the other team today."  A loss should not be attributed to the fact that the coach is mean; a win doesn't mean the coach is compassionate.

So when I see students pleading for mercy on their AP exams, I despair.  Such pleas are too often learned behavior.  They see whining, begging, smearing as effective in their own school, so they try it on the AP exam itself.  Now, I don't know what makes anyone think that an AP reader, who is generally a consummate professional bound to grade precisely to a rubric, has any ability or desire to raise or lower a particular student's score.  That's as crazy as suggesting that NFL officials are out to get Seattle, or Cleveland, or whoever.  

Strike down the language of "mercy" early in the year, so you can focus on learning physics.  If you ever need help on that account, I am more than happy for you to show this post to parents, colleagues, or administrators; or I'll even add an amicus curiae on your behalf.  None of us anywhere can teach properly if our students are gaming schools' social structure rather than practicing their problem solving.

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