Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #3: Test Wisely

Idiom, sir?
Many teachers resent giving tests, not because they are onerous to make and grade, but because they have to give so many evaluations in general. Any teacher worth his salt knows exactly the capabilities of all of his students all the time with relatively few and simple evaluations. It's not even that hard to know even a roomful of students, if you pay attention. There has been much-deserved pushing back against excessive testing, but so much that pedagogical trends have gone in the opposite direction and to an equally foolish degree. Reasonable tests and testing accomplish three things.

First, they give otherwise unmotivated students the impetus to commit skills and facts to memory. Second, they make the teacher accountable for progress and objectivity. Third, they show you what a student can do with only his own abilities under reasonable time constraints. Many students and teachers strenuously try to circumvent these features, often ingeniously, because they wish to conceal what is often the truth: that there is no learning going on in the class. In a world of ideal students and teachers, then, tests would not be necessary, but utopia is a fantasy.

The following little list of advice regarding tests clusters around balancing two ideas: what is right generally and what is suitable for your particular class.

First, be consistent about everything test-related, especially: how many per marking period, how many points certain types of questions are worth, how many points tests are worth, and how questions are to be answered. Consider also length, difficulty, how long students have to complete it, whether you review beforehand and afterward, whether they get review materials beforehand, at what intervals in the text and course you give tests, and of course how you grade. Quite fairly, students are bewildered when these factors vary far and wide.

Second, you have to finish teaching the material before giving a test. This means you need to give back homework and quizzes, for example, before the test! This also means you shouldn't give a test on one chapter when you've already started the next one. The class is cumulative, but moving forward.

Third, don't be the teacher whose attention to tests consists of slapping the publisher's book of test masters onto the copy machine and hitting, "Start."

Aside from the consistently poor quality of pre-made tests, no one teaches exactly the way any book does. Students get thrown off–and fairly so–when some test in a completely different style is thrown at them. You need to make your own tests, adapt tests, or diligently search for ones that suit your teaching idiom.

Fourth, make evaluations useful. Don't give tests in which students can work around the task by memorization, repeating the exact questions you've given before, or by giving you vaguely the type of information they know you typically want. (The lazy, students and teachers alike, secretly prefer vague questions because it means many answers can be construed as correct.)

Fifth, you have to accentuate the negative, but kindly. Students love to put the A+ grades on the refrigerator, but it's the failures that they need to work on, and those tests go in the garbage or get buried at the bottom of the schoolbag. You need to reinforce the good while attending to weaknesses.

Sixth, update your tests right after you grade them. Was one question unclear? Did even good students bomb out on one section? Was it too long? Did it have to much new or old content?

If you don't review your tests, next year's students will suffer the same fates as those of last year. If you wait until too long to update the test, you won't remember what you needed to change.

Seventh, take your test, and even if you don't take every test, take one regularly. You may only realize you made a few typographical errors, but more importantly you'll realize that physically writing out the responses wearies your hands and eyes. It is easy to get wrapped up in the intellectual business and forget what it feels like to be as physically confined as schoolroom students.

You may also realize one of the hardest things for a teacher to notice, namely that you are answering the questions with knowledge and experience you have but which they have yet to learn.

Finally, write precise directions and don't answer too many questions while administering the test. Some students possess a genius for swindling information from teachers. If you made a mistake in making the test, tell them not to waste their time in confusion but to do what seems best to them. Then deal with the issue fairly and generously when you grade.

Remember that whatever new directions you issue will confuse some and be ignored by others. Even simple impromptu directions may prove confusing.

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