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15 December 2017

A guide for useful and successful semester exams

A school community too often anticipates semester exams as they would an auto-da-fé.  We teachers know that the purpose of exams is not to torture, but to provide a touchstone in the learning process.  When the semester exam process is executed* well, students derive confidence from the skills they demonstrate, providing a foundation for an increased pace and difficulty in the second half of the year. 

*hah!

It’s part of our job, though, to help the students develop an exam-positive view of the learning process.  Our attitude going in, as well as the specific things we ask our students to do in preparation for the exam, must be in line with the true purpose of exams.

Here, then, are four ideas for setting the right tone so that you get the most out of your semester exam.

(1) Insist on serious attention to every assignment throughout the year, so that the exam doesn’t seem like the teacher playing “gotcha”.

Your goal should be to have your students ready for the exam without any extra studying.  Hold every student accountable for not just doing each assignment to get it done, but for doing it right.  When students miss something important on a homework problem, give a similar question on an upcoming quiz.  Require the student who bombs this follow-up quiz to attend an extra-help session to do the problem right.  Make it more trouble to do assigned problems wrong than to do them right.

Why? Ask yourself, what does effective studying for an exam look like?  Very much like the process above.

(2) Be careful not to study-shame

How does this sound from the director of the school play with opening night imminent: “Make sure you practice your scenes 100 times each tonight; those of you who do might hit all your cues, but if you don’t spend that time tonight, your performance will suffer and you’ll trip and fall during the dance number in act 1.”

Even if you don’t intend to shame or threaten your students, that’s what they hear when a teacher explicitly invokes the consequences of unpreparedness.  

Recognize that students - especially juniors and seniors - will not change their exam preparation habits based on entreaties from you.  You think that the student who hasn’t done serious preparation for an exam in any of five classes and two semesters per year for four years will suddenly say “Oh, Mrs. Lipshutz says it’s extra-important to study for physics, I’d better do that.”?!?  If our mere words have that much influence over recalcitrant teenagers, we should be in politics or marketing, not teaching.

More likely, we lose political capital and put emotional distance between us and our students.  Teenagers don’t like to be told what to do, even if what they’re being told is undoubtedly in their self-interest.  They tend to rebel.  There’s no point in complaining about this aspect of teen psychology; we might as well kvetch about how the Bengals always punt on 4th and short.  We’re right, but powerless in the face of human irrationality.  


(3) Use positive rather than negative incentive to promote exam preparation.

Fear of failure is a serious obstacle to success, whether on this particular exam or in physics generally.  

If you give students no direction for exam prep, they will default to study modes that have been successful for them in the past* in math and history courses -- memorize as many facts from the textbook as possible, practice and memorize algorithms that they’ve used in class before.  Such approaches to preparing to do physics are not even wrong - they are actively detrimental to a student’s progress, and to the progress of the class as a whole.  Diligent students who already struggle with difficult concepts undertake their not-even-wrong study regime, bomb the exam, then have ammunition when they tell parents and administrators how your course is too hard and unfair - they studied so much, and still didn’t do well.

* Or at least, modes that parents and teachers believe on faith to be successful       
                                                                                                                                                                   
I’ve found success giving students something straightforward and useful to do for exam preparation. 

“Here is a review exercise consisting of twenty multiple choice questions.  Please fill out the answer sheet on your own, without assistance from anyone - no questions at all, just like on the exam.”*

*(If you can’t trust students to answer these questions on their own, give time in class to do them.  It will be well worth the effort.)  

“Once you’ve answered all the questions, I’ll scan your form.  Extra credit will be awarded to anyone who writes out a thorough justification for all of the problems that they missed.  

"Collaboration with me and classmates on these justifications is encouraged.

“I’m offering a study session after school on Wednesday.  Pizza and nachos will be available.  Come on by – it’ll be fun, and I’ll help you with any questions that are still confusing you.”  

Look what’s accomplished by this approach.

Instead of requiring that students take a practice exam, instead of lecturing about how good an idea it’d be to take a practice exam, you’re couching the practice exam as an optional “extra credit” exercise.   Which approach do you think gets more willing cooperation?  Yeah, I don’t believe in extra credit, either, but I *do* believe in students undertaking exam preparation enthusiastically rather than reluctantly.  (And students who didn’t complete the practice have no standing for a post-exam complaint to parents and administrators - wait, you “studied for hours” but you didn’t do a small practice assignment for extra credit?  Not likely.)

You focus the students on what they really need to study, because they spend most of their time correcting the questions they missed.  Without such guidance, students may spend a couple of hours doing problem types they already are good at, while ignoring the topics or styles of problem on which they struggled. 

Some students will work themselves into a panic, thinking there’s always more that can and should be done to prepare for an exam.  These students are put at their ease: “Once you finish this exercise, you are ready.  There’s nothing more you should or can do to prepare.”

Some students will tend to do nothing at all in preparation for the exam, even though a review of some sort would be useful for them.  These folks will tend to do an extra credit exercise that all their classmates are doing, too - just to be social, if nothing else. And lo, your recalcitrant students have studied, without even a nanopascal of pressure from the teacher.

(4) Make the exam itself – and the follow-up to the exam – worthy of your class goals.

But that’s an article for a different time…







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