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19 November 2013

Exam review: 9th grade conceptual physics optics, waves, and circuits exam

Trimester exam time here at Woodberry.  Yes, trimester -- we give exams before Thanksgiving, the first week of March, and the last week of May.  It's wonderful to have so many opportunities to give long exams, because students prepare diligently for these, and take them very seriously.  An exam is the best teaching tool I can think of.

A colleague in the history department this morning noted how the freshmen seemed low-key and not stressed.  Great!  That's exactly the attitude that Alex (the other 9th grade teacher) and I were consciously attempting to instill.  

I believe in predictable yet challenging exams.  The exam is not a place for cuteness, tricks, or extra-hard "let's see if anyone can get this" questions.  But then, I believe the same way about regularly scheduled class tests.  Conceptual physics test and exam questions always consist of questions adapted from New York State Regents Exams.  I don't throw in an AP question to challenge the top students; nor do I put a section of gimmee recall questions in.  Problem sets and regular quizzes use exam-style questions, too.  Thus, the students know exactly the style and level of difficulty to expect.

We have given three tests this year so far.  All were cumulative -- no, Johnny, you may not just forget everything about lenses and mirrors after the first test.  If you could, why should I bother teaching to begin with?  Two tests were heavy on the multiple choice; the third was just open-response.  Students were required to correct everything they missed on each of the first three tests.    So when I described the exam format -- two hours in which to complete 20 open-response and 40 multiple choice questions -- no one panicked.  They themselves commented, "it's just like a long test, then."

So how to "review" for the exam?  Freshmen especially can be crazy-anal about exam review, trying to cram way too much information from a textbook, or trying to game the test by memorizing the problems they think might appear.  That's unhelpful.  It's my job to guide them to doing the right sorts of things to review.

I start by posting all of the facts we've covered this trimester.  Click the link to see the file I posted.  I don't encourage anyone to read the textbook.  Instead, all year I've handed out fact sheets consisting of subsets of the posted file.  In the runup to the exam, I encourage students to work until they can recall every one of these facts with ease.  That's productive studying.

Then, I hand out a review sheet consisting of test-style problems.  I give enormous incentive* for students to not only complete the sheet, not only to correct their mistakes, but to get their corrections RIGHT.  It's one thing to memorize pages of facts... it's another to practice applying those facts to test questions.  The review sheet provides the same practice questions to everyone so that they all can discuss their answers with classmates.

* including substantial extra credit -- for perfect corrections only -- and the opportunity to attend a nacho party.  The nacho party is the more effective incentive.

Sending out the single-file fact sheet worked wonders.  This morning as I wandered the dorms, I found more than half my students using the fact sheet to study somehow.  They were quizzing each other orally.  They were creating their own written quizzes.  They were looking up facts to do practice problems.  They were making notations on the fact sheet so they could ask me questions when I came by.  No one ever, ever used a textbook like this in all the years I've taught.  But because I condensed the material to ten pages in which every single word is relevant, the fact sheet became not just useful but indispensable.  

Feel free to use the fact sheet for your class.  Every question on the exam is based on one or several of these facts. 

And if you'd like to see or use my exam, please email me.  I'd be happy to share.



  1. I feel similarly about the oral exams I do for my college courses. I want the students to not be too stressed about them because they know I'll keep re-asking the question until they understand it. Of course, standards-based grading has helped immensely with this because the students know that, if they screw up, they can always figure out a way to reassess (sbg also hits the point about cumulative exams). What I love is that, given a choice, most of my students choose oral exams over written exams.

    Regarding your fact sheet vs textbook discussion: If the students know that'll be coming by the end of the term, do they ever read the text? Is that a skill that should be taught? I'm not really a textbook guy, but if my students have one, I tend to assume they're reading it.

  2. Interesting point about oral exams. Nice.

    About textbooks, though... I *know* that my students (at any level) don't read the text except when assigned, or except to try to find a sample problem nearly identical to one that was assigned. And when they do read the text, they often become more confused than previously because there's just so much information in the text they don't recognize what's relevant.

    I don't want students reading the text. (In fact, I've dumped a text altogether for AP, and I am going to dump the 9th grade text as soon as I am able.) Now, once students have been through the entire trimester, I think they would enjoy reading the text. But as long as they are still internalizing the important facts, and as long as they are reading for the purposes of targeted exam studying rather than for pure curiosity, text reading is counterproductive.

    As to whether the skill should be taught... I think in some sense I *am* teaching students how to read a text, by pulling out the important facts. At the 9th and 11th grade levels, I think that's the correct way to start. (Know that I disagree to a large extent with teaching Shakespeare at this level.) And in the harsh but valid column: I'm not willing to teach students to read a textbook until textbook authors and publishers are taught how to write a textbook that can be reasonably read.