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10 February 2018

Oh My Gawd, It's a Test!

How does your class react when you announce an upcoming test?

Ideally, they say nothing.  They register the reminder with the same demeanor with which the New England Patriots took the field for their seventh Super Bowl this century: calm confidence mixed with a tinge of nervous anticipation.

Too often, though, your announcement incites a game of misery poker, each student in turn offering a complaint, a sarcastic comment, or an increasingly dramatic vision of how the upcoming test will ruin his life.  How do we as physics teachers encourage an appropriate culture around testing?

It starts with the very first comment about the very first test.  If you let small passive-aggressive comments go unchallenged early, they'll eventually turn into big actual-aggressive comments that can't be mitigated.

I deal firmly, kindly, and somewhat publicly with the student who fans the flames of drahma.  "Oh my goodness, I studied for hours and I know I'm gonna fail.  Here goes nothing."

In front of all, I'll put the same phrase in the context of sports: "Johnny, you're a baseball player... you just said to your team and coach, 'I'm next up to bat.  Just know that I suffered through these horrible practices all week, I'm still terrible, and I'm gonna strike out right now before I let a grounder go through my legs next inning.'  What would your coach say?  Oh, that's right, she'd bench you.  She'd replace you with someone who wasn't explicitly and aggressively saying he'd let the team down."

On a team, such chicken little talk gets the social shunning it deserves.  Why do we let it pass in academics?  Nip it in the bud.  The silent majority of students will appreciate the more positive atmosphere you create by shutting down the drahmatists.

If a student continues to kvetch, or even if he gives me negative body language, I'll take him aside and appeal to his* ego.  "So, Johnny, you're one of the better students in the class.  How do you think your words make Joey feel?  He's going to think, jeez, if JOHNNY thinks he's gonna fail, what chance to I have?  The class needs positive leadership from you, Johnny, and leadership begins with poise and confidence."

* I teach at a boys' school.  I imagine that my approach would work similarly in a co-ed environment, but I have no direct evidence.

But students have legitimate questions about the upcoming test.  Of course.  I can't shut those questions down... I must communicate the form, content, and performance expectations of the test.

Nevertheless, I don't need to answer silly or irrelevant questions; I don't need to answer questions twice; and I don't need to answer passive-aggressive questions that are really whiny complaints.

What's going to be on the test?  Answer it once per year: everything we've discussed.  [Smile.]  I'm not doing my job as a teacher if I give you permission to forget everything I've taught you.

Make the format consistent and transparent.  Hand out the cover sheet ahead of time, indicating the number of each type of question and time limits.  If the students don't expect surprises; and better, if the gossip amongst generations of students never includes stories of surprise or gotcha questions; then you can more reasonably demand that your students stop with the fear-mongering.

Will there be a curve?  Again, answer out loud once per year: the cover sheet includes the point values for each section, along with the number of points necessary for each grade.  If you pass a sheet like this out for every test, there's no reason for anyone to ask about it in class.

What if I fail?  Are there retakes?  Can I do extra credit?  Can I lawyer up after the test to convince you to give me an A?  Can we go back to that fourth down play when New England didn't cover Nick Foles and the Eagles scored the winning touchdown?  What do you think, should we give the Patriots another try?  I mean, they've worked their tails off all season, they tried so hard, can't we have some mercy on them?  

I have a connection with most of my class through sports.  Feel free to use other avenues of public life.  "Can we go back to early November 2016?  Remember when Ms. Clinton didn't campaign in Wisconsin, Michigan, or Florida?  Perhaps the Republican party would allow a re-vote, or some extra credit for Clinton in the electoral college... after all, she tried so hard..."  

Whatever works for you and your class.  Just shut down the complaining.  It will be appreciated by most, and worth it come exam time.

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