I think college education would improve rather quickly if students would start asking more questions about the process. For most of them, it is their one and only shot at a college education. What they learn and then know for the rest of their lives is dependent on how well that process works. It is not something that they should take lightly. The efficiency of the process might be important to the teacher but it is essential to the lives of the students.

Personally, I believe transparency is a good idea. Plus, what a teacher does should be able to withstand a little scrutiny from the students that are involved. If I cannot explain why I am doing something, I probably need to rethink it.

However, we tend to train our young people to be very obedient – to do what their elders tell them to do without asking any questions. I have often speculated that I could walk into a college class and start giving nonsense assignments about Martians and the North Pole and most students would fall right in line and do exactly as they were told. Obedience is nice but I’d prefer for my thinking students to start asking questions.

Of course, some faculty members treat student inquiries as rude behavior much like W. C. Fields’ famous retort: “Go away kid, ya bother me.” That type of response will train any student to sit and be quiet.

I was pleased, therefore, to get a question recently from a college student about the educational process. Here is the question that was sent to me and below that I will give my response. However, before you read my response, stop reading and determine how you would have answered this question? I’ve got my answer but what is your answer?

From the student:

Dear Professor Hoyle, I am a 3rd year accounting major at University of Florida. I love reading your blog and even though I am not a teacher, your writings have tremendously helped me improve, both as a person, and as an accounting major.

I remember a story I read a long time ago and it gave me an idea which I want to share with you. “The story goes that Milo, a famous wrestler in ancient Greece, gained his immense strength by lifting a newborn calf one day when he was a boy, and then lifting it every day as it grew. In a few years, he was able to lift the grown cow. The calf grew into a cow at about the rate that Milo grew into a man. A rather freakish man apparently, since grown cows can weigh over 1000 lb. The point is, the calf grew old along with the boy.”

At UF, most of our accounting courses have 3 exams; 2 midterms and 1 final, thus each exam covers around 4-5 chapters. I understand that our accounting professors want to improve our critical thinking abilities during the course of the semester but I feel that bombing the first exam puts many students at a disadvantage and they have to end up dropping the course (even though they still might be able to bring their grades up eventually).

Wouldn't it be better if there were more exams and each exam was incremental? Hypothetically, the first exam covers only 1 chapter, the second covers 2 chapters, third covers 3 chapters and so on. Do you think this approach would still be useful in developing the critical thinking ability of students? Or is it going to defeat the purpose of “uncertainty” and just train the students on how to get better at taking the exam?

Okay, that is a very legitimate question. I think every teacher has had students who bombed the first test and then either dropped the class or just gave up. However, there are many reasons why a student might do poorly on a first test. They might have had one or two other tests on the same day. They might have been sick or a personal matter could have come up as a distraction. Most importantly, maybe they just needed that first test to gain an understanding of what the teacher wanted from them.

Given the importance of grades, how much emphasis should we put on the outcome of that first test?

Stop and think about it – this student clearly seems troubled by the approach that most of us use.

Here’s my answer to this question. When I initially got the email, I responded with a slightly different version but I’ve thought about it since that time and have done some editing. In truth, though, I’m actually much more interested in your response.

To the student from Joe Hoyle:

Thanks for the very insightful question -- and I really love the story of Milo. It is amazing how well a story like that can make a person's point so clearly.

You are obviously right -- a student can be devastated by a first test grade and either drop the class or stay in the class but just give up. Neither reaction is what a teacher really wants.

From a practical side, the problem is that the student and teacher often have different views of a test. For a student, it is extremely stressful and the grade is tremendously important -- potentially impacting careers and jobs and the like. One bad test grade can literally change a person's life. That is not an overstatement.

For a teacher, a test is a pain in the neck. They can be difficult to write and they are time consuming. Grading can be excruciating and coming up with a precise grade is hard to do (unless a teacher just has infinite confidence in their testing and grading abilities). Plus, every day that you give a test takes a day away from the learning process.

And, after the teacher gives the grade, he or she may have to endure student after student arguing about the validity of the grade.

Any time you have an event that is essentially important to one side but painful to the other, you have the potential for a problem. My bet is that most teachers would prefer to give no tests at all. Even if your suggestion is better for the students, it puts more work on the teacher -- time the teacher probably doesn't have because of other class work, research, and committee assignments. (If you are a student who has bombed the first test in an important course, that justification probably does not seem very satisfying.)

Isn't this a strange world where the good of one side is often a problem to the other?

I have friends who give periodic quizzes for just the reasons you mention and that seems like a reasonable approach. However, again, how much class time do you want to allocate to testing? And, how much time does the teacher want to allocate to writing and grading and discussing tests?

I don’t know if you know what a test bank is but test banks have become popular because they allow the teacher to outsource the testing process to someone who knows little or nothing about your class. The test is just as important to the student but requires less thought and work by the teacher.

Here's what I do. I teach 50 minute classes three times per week. Although this schedule has become much less popular over the years, I think having more repetition makes for better learning. In addition, having more classes makes it is easier to set aside additional days for testing.

I give three tests during the semester and a comprehensive final exam. In my Intermediate Accounting II class, I also require three short papers. With this system, each of the hourly exams counts 20 percent of the student's final grade.

When we come to the first test and the students are beginning to panic (some seem ready to have a nervous breakdown), I try to reassure them – “Whether you do great or whether you do awful on this first test, it is only 20 percent of your grade. This is just a first step in showing you what I want you to learn. If you have a problem, you've got plenty of time to make adjustments and get the grade up.”

I want to give my students a chance to see how I test. The grade on that first test is still important -- it is 20 percent of the overall grade -- but I don't want to crush their spirit if they have a bad day. I want them to focus on a longer term goal. I want each student to be great by the last class. I have no other objective. I think having a first test that counts 20 percent is a good way to push my students toward that goal.

But it is important for them to realize that if they do not do well on that first test, then they must make adjustments. If a student makes a 59 or 67, that better be a wakeup call that changes are necessary.

Every semester I will have students who bomb the first test but still make an A in the course because they wake up and say “this old guy is not kidding, he really does expect me to think about this material and learn it.” And, they immediately become better students and save their grades.

Those are often my favorite students because they didn’t quit or give up. That made adjustments and learned what I wanted them to learn.   They had time to do that and they made good use of that opportunity.  I wish I had more students like that.

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