Monday, February 15, 2010

How Hard Should the First Test Be?

I gave my first test in Financial Accounting on Friday (if anyone wants to receive a copy, send me a note at I thought it was a very challenging test and I am reminded of the psychological impact of every first test. I give three tests and a final exam during a semester because I want students to have plenty of opportunity to show me what they have learned. However, I understand the special importance of the first test. It can shake the confidence of the best student. It can bolster the confidence of the most timid student. If I make the first test too easy, I worry that my students will feel that I have set the bar fairly low and that less work will be necessary to succeed. If I make the first test too hard, I worry that my students will feel overwhelmed. Everyone likes a challenge but only as long as they feel that success is not impossible to achieve.

What are my goals on any test? I want the students to feel it was fair. I want the students to realize they could have worked every question with a proper level of knowledge and thought. I want to cover a wide range of material so I get a legitimate view of what they know. I want to be able to clearly differentiate the students with excellent knowledge from those with good knowledge, poor knowledge, and so on.

But, for the first test, I want a bit more than that. I want to show the students the level of understanding that I seek. In many ways, the first test is a road map to the students for the rest of the semester. “This is the kind of understanding that I believe equates to an excellent level of knowledge.”

I once took a course in basketball coaching. The teacher eventually became an NBA head coach and then a television analyst. I remember him talking about the first practice: “You set the tone for the entire season at the first practice. Always remember: it is easy to get easier; it is hard to get harder.”

I follow that approach. So, my first test on Friday was pretty darn difficult (I thought). However, giving out all D’s and F’s just to make a point does not seem fair. I want to be challenging AND encouraging. For that reason, I gave a very hard test and then I applied a pretty steep curve. I wound up with 16 percent A’s, 40 percent B’s, 32 percent C’s, and 12 percent D’s. Today, I will go into class and we will chat about how they can grow from this experience. It is only a small part of their grade and if they learn what I’m looking for, there is no reason they cannot do better on the second test. I will be thrilled if they walk out of class today and say “now I see what he wants and I can do that with sufficient work.”

I want the first test to be a real challenge but I do not want it to ruin their confidence level.

1 comment:

  1. You make some good points, but for introductory financial accounting another approach works better for me. The first test is essentially the accounting cycle. The point of the first test is not to actually *test* the students: it is to make sure that the students know how to prepare journal entries, post to T-accounts, understand what's in the T-account, prepare closing entries, and know where all of the accounts go on the financial statements. If the students don't have this knowledge, then they have a very difficult time grasping the rest of the course material.

    I completely agree with what you are saying about 'jello knowledge' and having the students reinforce their learning, but the sad truth is that until you have your first test, there are always some students who simply won't study. My goal is to give these students a swift kick in the pants so that they reform their habits for the rest of the semester.

    So for my introductory class only, I tell the students exactly what the test will be IN ADVANCE. I give them a question that is extremely similar (opening trial balance, prepare journal entries, some adjusting entries, close the accounts, prepare Balance Sheet and Income Statement) and warn them to study it. I make sure they have plenty of time to complete the test.

    The goal of the first test is to ensure that they have learned what they need to learn before proceeding with the course.

    Now for the second test, I warn the students up and down that this one will be different from the first test, and yes, there are always a few afterward who complain that it 'wasn't exactly like the review questions'. But those are sour grapes students who did not study (and their test scores prove it). They are far from the majority. In my years of teaching (and I'll admit, I haven't taught for as long as you have ;-) I've found that laying out the first test like that for introductory accounting helps the students. The few whom it doesn't help... sad to say, those are the ones who are probably not going to do well, no matter what I do. Unfortunately, there are always a few of those.

    And yes, my first test is worth a lot less than the other tests in the course.

    Now for Intermediate I and Intermediate II, my first test can be a doozy...