Saturday, September 21, 2013

Will this be on the test?

Sure, I can be smug when it comes to assessment. In my defense, I have been considering different ways to assess learning for over twenty years. Much of this work has involved using alternative assessments, but I am not above using more traditional approaches, like tests, especially when they involve some twist

Because of the negative associations many students have with math tests, I try to make it clear that my tests are used to support learning. Each test is merely a benchmark that monitors our progress toward established learning goals. We use the results to determine what we can do and what needs more practice. Yes, at some point a grade gets put in the books, but there is no need to worry until that time comes.

That is what I tell them, but often this is what they hear:

In case you are unfamiliar with Game of Thrones, some context.
So, it's no surprise when I start hearing this (of course I add the last bit in my head):

I understand that this is a conditioned response. At some point it worked; it made it easier to decide what to memorize in order to get a good grade. However, I want learners to decide for themselves what's worth remembering and to consider ways to make that learning last beyond the test.

So here's how I want to respond from now on (turns out I'm smug and snarky - who knew?)
    Does it make you more curious about the material?

    Are you likely to try to learn more about the topic on your own?

    Would you consider putting the ideas in a concept map in order to make connections?

    Can you see yourself discussing the subject with others in order to talk your way to understanding?

    Might you examine your thinking in light of the information and consider refining it?

    In all seriousness, I recognize test-anxiety as a real issue among many of my students - an unintended consequence of high-stakes testing in the past. I hope my efforts at humor do not come across as flippant. My goal is to reframe "Will this be on the test?" as an opportunity to examine alternatives to the binge-and-purge approach to studying. Because if I am satisfied with learning that leaves instead of learning that lasts, then why even bother?


    1. I had a wonderful experience the other night in my calculus class. I told them the work we were doing to prove that derivative of sin x is cos x would not be tested. They asked even more questions than usual. After we'd been working for almost an hour, I asked if they wanted me to just outline the last parts of the argument. No, they wanted to fight their way through it. I was so proud of them! (Here's the material we were working through.)

    2. I usually don't mind when they ask if something is going to be on the test (although it can be asked as an obnoxious question-- it's really all down to tone) because usually they're trying to figure out how they will be assessed on the topic, which seems like a reasonable thing to want to know.

      All the same, I do like your smug and snarky response.

    3. For me as a student, that question would only come up in the last half of a semester. I would always start a class with optimism and a focus on learning, but as the semester went on and finals approached, the amount of new material in all my classes became overwhelming, and "Will it be on the test?" could be a key to survival.

      If I ever get the chance to go back to school, it will be as a part-time student, so I have the luxury of giving each class all the attention it deserves...