Sunday, April 17, 2011

Some Good Thinking

In writing this blog, I have occasionally shared one of my favorite quotes about teaching: "Teaching does not come from years of doing it. It actually comes from thinking about it.“ I bring up this quote whenever I lead any discussion of teaching. Almost inevitably, someone in the audience asks how a teacher goes about thinking about teaching. It is easy to make a joke about sitting in a dark room in focused contemplation but most of us would just fall asleep.

I believe one of the best ways to think about teaching occurs when you write an examination for your students. Since I have spent most of my current weekend writing a test, the process certainly has been on my mind.

Writing a test brings up so many questions having to do with your class.
--What level of understanding is a student supposed to have developed based on how you structured the coverage?
--What are you trying to test? What are your priorities?
--How do you write questions that differentiate between students who truly understand the material and those that don’t?
--How do you write questions that stress thinking and understanding rather that just pure memorization?
--How do you write questions that are not too vague without simply lining up the information that the students need in a tidy row?
--How much information do you provide and how much should students be able to figure out on their own?
--What exactly do you expect an A student to know?
--Or, put another way, if students were in your class and did what you asked them to do each day, could they answer each of the questions that you are posing on the test? Are there any questions that go beyond what has been covered (and, if so, does the student still have a reasonable chance of arriving at a proper answer).
--Do you want students to have to rush through the exam to complete it or would you prefer for them to be able to work at a leisurely pace?
--Do you just want answers or do you want answers with explanations?
--How much time do you want them to spend reading the test. For example, a 20-page test can have great depth but does not leave much time for actually answering questions.
--Are you asking the same thing in more than one question? If so, does the redundancy add anything to the test?
--Are you leaving out material that should be tested?

I woke up at 6:15 this morning and realized that I was lying in bed trying to figure out how to structure a question about a particular piece of material. I knew that I could ask the question in such a way that it would be overly complex and no one could get it correct. Or, I could make some adjustments and it would be too easy and every student would be able to answer it. Neither of those does me much good in trying to determine a fair grade. How should I tweak that question so that I can gauge who knows and who doesn’t know?

The material I was thinking about at 6:15 was important material for my class. How could I set up the question in such a way that the students with a deep understanding would get it correct while the students with no understanding could not get it correct by guess work or luck?

Of course, that leads to the question: How well have we covered this material? What should I expect the average student to know in order to achieve the average grade?

I know a lot of teachers use test banks produced by textbook publishers or they carry over exams from year to year. I even meet teachers occasionally who seem to be afraid of writing their own test questions. I’m honestly not sure what they are afraid of. I do know that writing a good test can take an enormous amount of time. However, nothing makes you think more carefully about what you have covered and what you wanted to cover than spending a long morning writing a test that successfully allows students to demonstrate in a fair manner what they have come to understand.

Time well spent – even at 6:15 on a Sunday morning.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


A good friend of mine, Steve Markoff, has written an excellent essay on learning to teach by being a student. It is well worth reading at

Over the years, I have taken classes in everything from Russian culture and ballroom dancing to jewelry making and photography just to remind myself of what it is like to be the person in class who feels lost and confused. Many universities allow faculty members to take classes for free or at reduced prices. Put aside your fears and go sign up for a class where you are not the expert.

When it comes to college students, the old saying “you don’t know what you don’t know” is all too often true. For the most part, they are young people who have only seen a very narrow slice of life and, like the blind men and the elephant, they believe that the slice of life they have experienced represents the reality of life. Thus, at times, they need guidance even though they may not ask for it.

I will give my third test of the semester next Monday. I am often frustrated that grades don’t change much between the first test and the second. The students who make As and Bs continue to work well and make more As and Bs. The students who make Cs and Ds continue to flounder and make more Cs and Ds. By the time we get to the third test, I really want to see those Cs and Ds turn into As and Bs

I will often call in the students who do poorly on a test and they will eagerly confess that they are doing in my class exactly what they have always done in all of their classes. Apparently, they believe this is the one set way to prepare for a class. They then seem stunned when I respond “well, your strategy is not working very well. You need to make significant changes. Einstein said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

There is obviously some difference between students based on their knack for the subject matter. Some students simply see the underlying logic more easily than do other students. However, in my opinion, the biggest variables tend to be hours spent in study and the efficiency with which they use those hours. Students will resist this idea like the plague but I will ask them “if you spend three hours studying poorly and your neighbor spends 10 hours studying well, you know who is going to make the higher grade. So, don’t even try to tell me that more time studying and better spent time is not going to help you to do better.” (Students are like everyone else – what they really want is a magic bullet that will help them to do better without requiring any more work.)

Many students who struggle have two basic problems: they don’t spend enough time studying (either before class or after class) and, even if they want to study more, they are not sure how to fill up their time. I’m convinced that most classes in school (from kindergarten until they walk into my class in college) don’t teach students how to study.

So, as we approach our third test (where I’m really looking for some of those Cs and Ds to step up and turn their engine around), I do two things.

First, I suggest a very specific number of hours for them to study and urge them to keep a calendar so they know that they have studied enough. I suggest 10-12 hours for my introductory class and 12-18 hours for my upper-level class. You may expect more or less from your students but you might as well tell them what you expect. Basically, I want them to block off the week-end and immerse themselves in getting a full grasp of the material because it is rather complex.

Second, I give them specific assignments that I think will help them come to understand the material (or push them to come to me to seek help). I give them the test I gave last fall on this material along with the answers. I warn them that I am going to give them a different test but this will provide them some idea of what I expect and how I test this material. That alone should keep them busy for two hours on Saturday morning. Also, as we cover material, I will frequently send them problems by email and say “if you understood what I wanted from class today, here’s an exercise that I would expect you to be able to work.” I do provide an answer but no work. I want them to figure out where that answer came from. I am trying to give them productive ways to fill up those needed hours of study.

Having an A student make an A is wonderful but I imagine they would have done well without my help. Having a C or a D student make a C or D is frustrating but it is just one of the sad parts of this occupation. It is sad because I wasn’t able to make a difference.

However, having students start out with low grades but then having them figure out how to change the way they prepare so that they grow into an A student is my very favorite part of being a teacher. It is with those students that I feel I make a genuine difference. Learning is not magic. More time better spent can make a huge difference. Sometimes students need that guidance.