In my previous blog entry, I responded to a student from Florida who wrote in about the potentially devastating results of a bad first test.   As often happens with me, I have spent a lot of time since then thinking about how I could better prevent my own students from being trapped by the results of that first test.   I do not want my students to come to accept that they are just C or D students and have no possible way to improve.   I too often hear “well, I made a low C on that first test; I guess I’m destined to do poorly in this class.”   That’s nonsense.   I want them to fight back.   One test grade is just one test grade.   But, we are all human and much of our self-image is based on what happens to us right now.  A lot of success in life comes from having confidence and a bad first test grade can kill anyone’s confidence.   How do you avoid ruining a student’s confidence as a result of a bad first test?

I am giving my second test next week so I sent out the email below to my students today.   I am hoping that it will encourage some of them to show me a better side to their abilities.    As you can see here, I want to show them that failure is not pre-ordained.   Success is not impossible.   I am trying to get it into their very young heads that they do have control.   They have the ability to do better.   We’ll see what adjustments I get.

To:   My Students

I was pleased by how you came back from Spring Break. Often students walk back in after a week off and seem to have forgotten 2 months’ worth of material (especially if they have sun tans). On Monday, though, virtually everyone was prepared (pretty well) and ready to go. I was pleased.

Consequently, I head into these last few weeks of the semester quite optimistic. As I have said before, I don’t have many students who seem obsessed over making an A (maybe less than usual) but I have more students than usual who seem very capable of making an A. I like that – my job is to push you to get there.

You have two examinations, two papers, and a comprehensive final exam left in this course. That is about 75 percent of the grade. How you do in this course very much depends on how you do from here out. There are no guarantees in life but if you give me an all-out good amount of energy, you should be happy with the results.

Last weekend, I was visiting relatives. Probably as a consequence, I wound up spending a lot of time watching basketball. Nothing much is accomplished by watching other people being active but it allowed me to kill time.

During those games, I heard two things that I found interesting. The first came from a coach and the second from a player.

The coach has been in a hard-fought game and his team had rallied and won. He was clearly excited and thrilled. The television announcer asked him how his team had managed to do so well at the end of the game. His response was something like this: “We called our players over and told them that if they were going to win, they quickly had to become the best players on the court.”

If you seriously want an A, at some point, you have to be one of the very best students in the room. Being an average student in the room is fine and dandy but that will just get you a C. You cannot earn an excellent grade by being mediocre. If you are serious about being ambitious, then at some point (tomorrow, for example), you have to step up and be one of the best students in the room. And, that takes a serious level of preparation. You cannot become one of the best students in the room by making changes after you get there. The changes have to be made before you get there.

In the other game, one team had been behind by something like 7 points at halftime but came back to win by about 10. After the game, the announcer was talking to one of the winning players who commented: “We came out in the second half ready to make the adjustments that were necessary in order to play better. The first half showed us what we had to do differently and, in the second half, that is what we did.”

I don’t care what grade you made on the first test. I want to see you make a real improvement on the second test. But, to do that, you have to start being one of the top students in the room. You cannot sit there and let other people shine. There has to be a fire in your belly (not during the test but rather during the daily class experience) that pushes you to be great. That greatness will carry over to the test.

And, you have to make adjustments. If you made 74 on the first test and continue to prepare and study in the same manner, I would expect you to make about 74 on the second test. In many ways, the first test has one purpose:  to help you figure out what you need to do differently. What did you learn from that first test?

We have our second test next Monday. I’ll leave you with a story from about 4-5 years ago. I had a woman in class who was never prepared. I could ask her virtually any question in class and get a blank stare. Not surprisingly, she made a D on the first test. I figured she would catch on but, sure enough, her preparation remained abysmal. She was clearly doing no work to get ready for the learning experience of class. On the second test, she made another D. I could see where her grade was heading.

She then came to my office in near hysteria. She had a job offer and absolutely could not make a D or F in my class. I mentioned (as kindly as I could) that she was never prepared for class. Her response was typical of a lot of students: “There’s no need for me to prepare because I pay close attention in class and write down everything you say so that I can learn it later.”

She seriously thought that writing down the answers was the same as learning to figure things out.

I challenged her to do an experiment for just one week. I wanted her to spend as many hours as it took (a gazillion maybe) but for that one week I wanted her to be the best prepared student in class. “Humor me,” I remember saying, “I’m an old person.” My only advice was: Be the best prepared person in class each and every day.

When she walked out of my office, I mumbled to myself “I suspect that’s going to happen when pigs fly.”

At the next class, I purposely asked her the very first question and I made it really complex. And, much to my surprise, she gave me a legitimate and thought out answer. I waited a few minutes and asked her a second question and got an equally good answer. For the rest of the semester, she was the best prepared person in the room, every day. She made a solid A on the third test and one of the highest grades in the room on the final exam. She did not get a D for the semester. She wound up with a very strong B. She did not get the A only because she waited too late to make the needed adjustments.

She has gone on to have a very solid career in public accounting. She made the adjustments needed to become the best prepared student in class and that made all the difference.

If you were happy with your grade on the first test, please ignore that story. It is not important. However, if you were upset over your first grade, read that story a second time. That was her but it can also be you.

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