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17 December 2017

Do I enjoy giving exams? Yes.

The question was once asked of me, in a most appropriate manner, whether teachers enjoy giving exams.  The asker seemed brain-dead from his first night of studying, knowing that he had a full week of hard academic work in front of him.

Though he was too polite to verbalize the expression in his face, I suspect his deeper thought was: “Why do teachers put us through this heck of cramming?  Do they get sadistic pleasure out of it?  Do they enjoy tormenting their students?  Weren’t they students once?  WHY DO THEY DO THIS TO US?”

Since the questioner was so polite, since he truly seemed curious about the answer, and since I’m sure much of the student body asks themselves the same question three times* each year, I think the question deserves an answer.  I can’t speak for teachers in general, nor even for teachers at my school.  But I’ll answer for myself:

* my school is on trimesters, not semesters

Yes, I enjoy giving exams, despite the enormous amount of work they create for me and for my students.  But probably not for the reasons you might think.  Put yourself in a teacher’s loafers for a moment…

When exam day arrives, I have dedicated the previous eleven weeks of my life to teaching physics.  I am “on duty” virtually nonstop when school is in session, especially in the fall when learning physics is most difficult for my classes.  When I’m not actually in class teaching, I’m grading assignments, preparing lectures and demonstrations, writing problems and assignments, helping students… You can ask my wife – all trimester I am thoroughly, monkishly, devoted to helping my students learn physics to the best of their ability.

The exam is an opportunity to find out how well I’ve done teaching, and how well my students have done learning.  I want to know – did those long hours, those occasional interminable days and early mornings, did they pay off?  Did I really succeed in develop every student's physics skills?  What can I do better?  What can THEY do better?  What did we do well? 

I think of my teaching job much like a coach’s job.  Did Mr. Hale enjoy the state cross-country meet?  Well, of course he did.  Even though it was the runners who performed, not the coach, Mr. Hale still saw the fruits of his team’s months-long labor in the “final exam”  of the year’s last race.  As in every season, he rejoiced not only for the runners who placed near the top of the league, but also for those who showed dramatic improvement under his tutelage. 

In my class, then, the trimester exam is equivalent to the biggest game of the season.  I am cheering for everyone to do well.  I know from experience that most students, in fact, will do well.  I'm ready to use the exam as a learning tool for those who don't do well - as a learning tool for that student, and as a learning tool for me as I figure out how to help that student do better next time.  

Do I enjoy a student's poor performance?  No.  Yet I thoroughly enjoy the successes, which vastly outnumber the failures; and even when students don't do well, I enjoy the process of finding out how good I and my students have been.

Now let me throw this question back at the student who asked it.  Do you enjoy the state cross country meet?  Because if you don't work really, really hard during the season, you're not likely to win the race.  Even if you do practice well, a freak trip-and-fall could wreck the performance that you've worked all season to produce.  And you could lose not because you didn't work hard, but just because another runner has more natural, raw talent than you do.  YOU COULD FAIL.

So, grasshopper: 

When you feel the same nervous, excited anticipation for your final exam as for the state championship... 

When you develop the same discipline in academics and in sport to prepare every day throughout the season, not just the night before...

When your hope for success overwhelms your fear of failure... 

...then you, too, will enjoy exams.



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