The Most Important Days of the Semester – Part Two

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On October 1, 2017, I posted the first of a two-part blog entry on the importance of the 2-4 days after the first test of the semester.  This initial essay included an email that I sent to my current students immediately after their first test.   My assumption has long been that students are most interested in how to do well in a course as they leave the first test.   The email encouraged them to consider two specific aspects of their post-test assessment. 

First, if they felt they had not done well, I made three suggestions about what might have gone wrong.   It is hard to improve without some identification of the problem.  Students who do not do as well as they had hoped should come up with an honest ending to this sentence prompt, “I did not do well on the first test because . . .”    A vague response does not do anyone any good.  As I said in that previous essay, most students simply do not spend enough time studying.

Second, I tried to get my students to put themselves into one of four categories (confident and ready to build on that positive first step, over confident and relaxed, unhappy but ready to take on the challenge to do better, and terribly discouraged and ready to give up).   Obviously, I am trying to encourage them (whether they did well or poorly) to put on a burst of energy and enthusiasm after the first test.   It is still early in the semester.   I never want any student to feel defeated and hopeless.

The second part of my strategy to help the students make positive changes in their approach to this course comes on the day I return the graded first tests to them.   I walk into class with the papers under my arm.  However, before I hand them back, I make a few specific points about possible improvement.

I did not record my opening remarks this semester but the speech below is my best memory of what I said.   It only took a few minutes but I wanted to encourage them to start looking at the course in a different way.   Remember – my only goal is to guide the students to better learning and that should lead to a better grade.  

“In just a few minutes, I will return your first test which is roughly 25 percent of your overall grade so you still have plenty of time to improve your average if you want or destroy it even if you did well on this test.   We have a long semester.  This is just the first test.   Whether you improve this grade is squarely up to you.

“I often tell students that learning only occurs at three points.  I refer to this as the learning triangle.  First, learning can occur during class.  We are together 150 minutes per week.  I want us to use each of those minutes wisely to enhance your knowledge of the subject.   To tell you the truth, most students (and I certainly include this class) typically do well during class.  No one falls asleep.   Everyone attempts to answer the questions as I pose them.   People take good notes.  Students can always do better, but I am not upset by the work you have done so far in class.

“The second point on the learning triangle is all the work that students do before they arrive at class.   I assign questions and you have to decide how much time and energy you want to expend to prepare answers to those questions.   Most students, and again I would include this class in this assessment, do fairly mediocre work when it comes to class preparation.  For most, there is simply not enough urgency to push them beyond doing as little as possible before class.   I honestly believe it is hard for any student to excel unless they do excellent work leading up to class – not mediocre work and not good work but genuinely excellent preparation.   Without good preparation, it is hard to pick up the subtle but key points brought out during class discussion.   You can only struggle to keep up with the main points.  Key little nuances are just missed. 

“The third point on the learning triangle is all the work that students do after class.   As I have said before, students invariably leave class with Swiss cheese knowledge.   It looks and feels solid but is totally full of holes.  To do well, you need to spend serious time after class filling in those holes.   For some, those holes are tiny.   For others, the holes are massive.   Either way, the reason I send you problems after class is to help you fill in the holes.   When I give a test, all I am trying to do is discover the size of the holes in your knowledge.  

"Most students are good in class, mediocre before class, and absolutely awful after class.   That’s the way it usually happens.

“Some students are mystified as to why their grades are not higher because “I worked so hard during class.”  However, that is only one of the three points of the learning triangle.  If you don’t get the grade you want on this first test, remember it is my opinion that it was the quality of the work you did before class and the quality of the work you did after class that led to the poor grade.  Work on those two and I think your grade can and will improve radically.  

“I am willing to help you improve your grade if you will come my office.  But, do realize that I will probably not be addressing our 150 minutes together each week.   Typically, that goes well.   If you want to do better, you have to start looking more seriously at the other two points of the learning triangle.

“If you twant a higher grade on our second test, you will need a grade higher than ‘mediocre’ on class preparation and a grade higher than ‘awful’ on filling in the holes of your Swiss cheese knowledge after class is over.” 

I never like to hand back that first test without telling students in advance “listen, if you like your grade, don’t make any changes in your routine.  If you don’t like your grade, you have time to fix it and here is some advice about where you need to start putting in more time and effort.”   I believe it is unfair (at least on the first test) to give a student a poor grade (and I give plenty of them) without providing some type of framework to help them see where they are coming up short and how to make amends.  

If you can get your students to make necessary adjustments, the first test can be the key step toward turning a mediocre semester into an outstanding semester.

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