Week 7- Tests as a Learning Tool (How boring does that sound? Ipes!)


Do my kids know Alexander of Macedon or do my kids know Iskander the Accursed?  They know both, and I’m bubbling over.

Structuring a test for success takes a lot of time, but it pays off.  This unit’s process looked something like this: First, students took notes on a few PowerPoints and Michael Wood’s In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great.  Second, students use their notes to write questions for a game.  I usually use a chutes-and-ladders style board on the overhead projector.  Third, I use the questions they created (and I have vetted) on the test.  By the time they get to the test, they have reviewed the information several different ways, not counting any of the studying that they might have done on their own.  A student has to work very, very hard to fail the test.  (And when they do, they are generally trying to tell me something that has nothing to do with History.)

The test is presented in short answer questions if not an essay.  I like the short answer questions method over anything else.  Students can learn to dig for an answer.  For example, students had a hard time remembering that Alexander’s engineers built a bridge to Pir Sar where they massacred the refugees (according to Arrian, one of Alexander’s biographers — poo to historian Lane Fox), but 300 of his men climbed the Sogdian Rock where he accepted the Bactrians’ surrender.  For a short answer, they don’t need the names Pir Sar or Sogdian Rock, per se.  They can describe the scene, and I will know what they are talking about.

So, they really knew their stuff.  Yet, many of them failed it, officially.  I require students to write using Academic English.  The number of answers correctly answered are checked, answers with grammar issues but are correct are circled, and wrong answers get an X.  When I was finished grading, I called those students with a B or less up to the desk.  First, I praised them for their command of the information.  But then, I focused on capitalization issues and periods at the end of sentences.   As I graded, I circled the places where mistakes were being made.  I want students to get so used to capitalizing sentences and using periods that then never have to think about it.

I offered these students a deal.  They could keep the grade they earned, or they could take their recesses and breaks to re-write the questions they missed either grammatically or informationally (is that a word?).  Anyway, they asked the best and obvious question?  “Will my grade go up?”  Yes.

I get some flack from other educators for giving students full credit on re-doing tests.  But I look at it this way: 1) students review the material again, adding more myelin to the brain.  2) Students learn what the Academic norms are with minimal fuss.  3) They are generally happy to be able to say to their parents, “I got an A!” with just a little more work. This improves their work ethic.  4) Failure is really their choice.  They can’t really say that I just gave them a grade if they have the opportunity to go back and fix mistakes.

Some educators have said to me, “But that’s not real life.  In real life you don’t get to take tests over.”  But that’s obvious bullshit.  I can rip out a sweater as many times as I like.  I can take the Bar exam over and over.  I can take my driving test and the GREs again and again.  The question I have for these educators is, “How badly do you want your students to remember the information you are trying to cram into their heads.”  Furthermore, being drug away from your recess/lunch/after school activities for most students is worth more in the long run than taking points off of some ephemeral test.

So, half of the class will be in here, taking up my prep period to re-do the test.  Hallelujah!


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