The Most Important Days of the Semester – Part One

I have long asserted that the most important days of any semester are the 2-4 days immediately after the first test.  So many good things and so many bad things can happen in this short period of time. They can make the semester more wonderful or they can ruin the semester.  It is the point where the group is of no importance but the individuals are of maximum importance.

Because of the importance of this period, I have started (as of this semester) doing two things.   I sent my students the following email immediately after their first test with the subject line “Please Read.”   I want to get their attention.   Then, a couple of days later when I get ready to return the graded exams, I take the first 5-10 minutes of class time to talk with them about my view of the learning process.   I will describe that talk in my next blog posting in a few days.

Email to my students:

I have not looked at the test yet but I will try to get an answer sheet to you tonight.   I will also try to return the tests to you on Monday. 

My only comment on the test (without looking at any of your papers) is that it looked like a test I would write.   I tried to cover lots of different stuff.   I tried to make every question tie back into our class in some logical way.   I tried to make some questions decently easy and other questions more challenging.   For those of you who have not been in my class before, this is what my tests look like.  Warning:  They will not magically become a lot easier.
I have taught for 46 plus years and I have always argued that the most important days in any semester are the 2-4 days right after the first test.   No other time comes close to being as significant to your grade. 

Until we have the first test, everything is just hypothetical.   You have no way to know whether you are studying too much or not enough.   You have no way to know whether you are catching everything or missing some things.   You have no way to know whether two hours between each class is too much or too little.   You have no way to know whether you should worry about the email problems that I send out or not.

Today, it all became real.   When you get your test back, it is important to self-assess.   What, if anything, do you need to do differently?   Most of you have been students for at least 16 consecutive years.   You might not be trained at much but you should be an expert at being a student.  Use that knowledge to determine what adjustments, if any, you need to make.   I felt that everyone was capable of making an A on this test.  If you didn’t, then you need to figure out what changes might be helpful.   Remember, whether good or bad, Test One is a relatively small part of your grade.  With adjustments, you can still do great.

If you didn’t do as well as you wanted, there are only three possible problems.

(1) – You didn’t study enough.   I don’t care if you study 23 hours per day.   You can always study more.   My guess is that 60-70 percent of students don’t study enough between classes.  That is a fact of life.   They are busy and the work is just not urgent.  This problem is the easiest one to fix.  Start keeping a study diary just to see how much time you are spending.  Lack of urgency is the biggest thing standing in the way of a good grade for most students.  Spend more time studying between classes -- that's always my first advice.

(2) – You didn’t study well.   You used techniques that have worked in the past for you but just didn’t work here.   A lot of students focus on the textbook and clearly I don’t focus that much on the textbook.   Try to come up with one different approach that you might use in your study routine – either on a day-to-day basis or for the next test.  Improvement requires change – it is just a fact.   Improvement requires change.   I'll say it twice.  Clearly, with all the material that I have sent you over the first 4 weeks, you have a lot that you can be doing.   Pick the ones that work best for you and focus on them.   You don’t need to do everything but you really need to do the ones that work.  One thing I would do is go back and read some of the paragraphs in the handout “How to Make an A in Professor Hoyle’s Class.”   That handout was all written by students just like you – who had all the problems you have and still managed to make an A.   What can you learn from them?

(3) – You had a bad day on the test.   It does happen.   People have headaches or a personal problem arises right before you walk into the class.   I think the first two are the most likely problems but bad days do happen.   If so, shake it off and start working on Test Two.

Please feel free to come by and talk with me about these three.   Students often think there is a magic fourth cause.   There is not.   If you didn't do well, it is probably one or more of these three.

The reason that I think this 2-4 day period of time is so important for a great semester is solely because of how you react to this test.   I watch students during these days very closely.  I want to see if there is any change – for better or worse.

It seems to me that there are four possible responses to your grade on Test One (when you get it back on Monday).   Everyone in class will fit into one of these four categories.   The only question is where you fit in. 

(1) – You were pleased with your work on Test One and that gives you confidence to push even harder for a good grade.   A lot of students who do well on test one get excited with the realization that they are capable of doing well in this course and they start working even harder/better.   Their class answers each day get better immediately.   Confidence is wonderful.

(2) – You were pleased with your work on Test One so you start to relax and pay more attention to your other classes or your life outside of class.   The pressure is off and you cut back on your study time.  I am not a big fan of relaxed students.   The A becomes a B and eventually a C and you’ll be mystified as to how you lost the A.  If you were pleased, that is not a good reason to slack off.  Don't do it.

(3) – You were not pleased with your grade on Test One and that irritates you.   You know you are capable and you are not going to accept a poor grade without a fight.   You start to spend more time on each assignment.  You do the email problems quicker.   You spend more time in my office asking questions.   You don’t leave a problem until you understand the answers.   You take a serious look at the PowerPoint Flash Cards that I created.  Consequently, your class answers begin to improve as you start to truly learn this stuff.  Annoyance is not a bad motivator.  “I can do better and I will do better” is a great response.

(4) – You were not pleased with your grade on Test One and your confidence is devastated.   This always breaks my heart.   One test is just a small part of the semester.   I can look in the eyes of these students and read their minds, “See, I told you I wasn’t good enough to do this stuff.   This grade proves it.”   That is absolute nonsense.   Everyone in this class is capable of making an A or a B.   I believe that completely.   You might have to study more.   You might have to study better.   You might have to ask me more questions.   But there is no reason to surrender.   Have some faith in yourself and start getting better prepared for the next class.

That last sentence is the key.   You cannot get ready for the second test today.   The only thing you can do is get really ready for our next class.   Make it your goal:  “I will be the best prepared person in the room on Monday.”   That’s always the best first step toward an A.

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