If you have followed this blog for a while, you know that I try to use the summer to get the students ready for the fall semester. I want everyone to be ready on the first day to take off and fly. Time is short. I want to use it all and use it effectively. Consequently, I send periodic emails to my new students from May through August although I am never sure whether they pay close attention or not. However, one email does seem to catch their attention.
Last week, I cut and pasted one of the questions included on the final exam last spring into an email. I then sent it to the new students to give them a feel for what they are going to learn this fall. Most students do not understand in advance the purpose of a course. A final exam problem gives them an illustration of what they will be able to do after we spend the semester working together. The reality of seeing a question that the previous class had to work draws the students’ attention. It is more real to them than almost anything else I can say.
In sending this email, I have several things I want to accomplish.
--I want it to be a question that they have a good chance of understanding. If the question covers topics they have never heard of, it will sound like gibberish. I do not want them to believe the course is about gibberish.
--I want the question to be broad enough to illustrate the overall purpose of the course. Why is the question relevant to the goals of this particular course?
--I want the question to sound interesting. “What the heck should we do in this situation?” is always a question that makes students think. Test questions can be boring or interesting. Interesting is better for learning and for the students' attitude.
--I am not trying to scare them. The question can not seem impossible. I am trying to create a sense of wonder and excitement about the learning they will do.
--Where possible, I assure them that a vast majority of students last semester got the question correct. “You can never do this” is not helpful. “I am going to show you how this problem works so that you will be able to do it well and make a good grade” is very encouraging.
--Somewhere in the email, I always include two sentences: “You are not in this alone. I am here to help.” No matter how I pitch the course, I want that message clearly conveyed. Although I am demanding, I want the students to know that I am on their side and we will be working together. I am not the enemy. I am on their side.
--I try to start the teaching process by drawing their attention to specific elements of the question. Why did I include this information? What is the point of that fact? How do these two factors fit together? I want them to start deconstructing the question to see what is involved and what is being asked.
--I do not include any answers. At this point, my purpose is to show interesting questions. The purpose of the semester is to arrive at logical answers.
There is something real about an actual final exam question that seems to awaken each new group of students to the possibilities of the semester. For the teacher, it provides an opportunity to show a complicated and challenging goal (“you will see this”) while reassuring the students they will be able to answer this question by the time of their final exam ("you will learn this"). It is a positive and engaging way to introduce the new semester.
The learning process is much more effective if you can make points to the students over the summer. A good question from the previous final exam is one way to begin getting them ready for the new adventure.