Thoughts on Making Testing A Better Process – Part One –The Five C’s of Good Test Taking

This is the 278th essay on teaching that I have posted on this blog.  A few minutes ago, I checked and the previous 277 essays (all written by me except for one or two) have had an average readership equal to 1,755 page views.  For me, that is a thrilling number.  When I first started, the mere possibility of amassing 1,755 readers on all blog postings combined would have amazed me beyond words.  I do hope these 277 ideas, discussions, and suggestions have improved education a bit here and there, now and then.

I am a well aware that I would have had almost no page views if it were not for the many people who forward the URL for this site to friends, relatives, enemies, strangers, colleagues, and the like.  I do not always say it but please do know that I always think it:  THANKS A MILLION!!!   The sole idea for this blog from the first day until now is that each teacher can (and should) keep improving and it really helps if teachers exchange ideas.  So, again, THANKS for making this possible by passing along the message when it seems worthy.

Here at the end of the semester, it is not surprising that I am thinking about the purpose of testing.  How can I make the process more beneficial for my students?   This is the first of a two-part series on testing.

Teachers must assess grades.  I have often pondered why I need to give each student a grade.  What does it accomplish?   I think it is helpful to consider why the process is necessary so you can make it as efficient as possible.  This is not rocket science but I assume there are two reasons for grades.

(1) – The teacher wants the student (and any future readers of the student’s transcript) to know an approximation of the student’s understanding of the course material.  If I take a course in the American Civil War and earn a B, then I can assume that I have achieved a good level of knowledge but not an excellent one.  After a semester of work, that is helpful feedback even if it is only a rough assessment.

(2) – The teacher uses grades to motivate students to do work.  We are not always willing to discuss that reality openly but it clearly is the truth.  Anyone who has ever taught a pass-fail course likely knows that the work rarely rises above average.  We do not live in a Utopian society where students work for the sheer love of learning.  Consequently, the hope of an A or a B is a carrot that drives some students to excel.  The threat of a D or an F serves as a stick that pushes other students to do work even when they have little interest or enthusiasm.

Whatever the reason, we want those grades to be fair and reasonable.

A teacher can determine grades in multiple ways using various combinations of testing, papers, presentations, quizzes, and other assessments.  I have tried them all over the past 48 years and they each have their drawbacks.  Presentations take significant class time and often interest a few students while the rest struggle to stay awake.  Papers provide a deep education on a narrow topic but do not address the broad coverage that is necessary in most courses.  Quizzes have a “Surprise!” theme that I do not like and can reward students for the luck of having prepared on the right topic on the right day.  Tests do allow for a much broader coverage of topics but can be terribly stressful.  They can lead students to “cram and memorize” – hardly the goal of a modern-day college education.

Probably because of the subject matter that I teach, I award grades primarily through testing.  I realize the shortcomings of that approach so I do try to work around that.  For example, I allow my students to bring in notes with them.  I believe that limits the tendency to “cram and memorize.”  Why memorize if you can write something down and bring it with you to the test?

More importantly, I work almost every day to connect our daily learning to an eventual test.  “We will work odd and unusual problems in class each day so you can eventually work them on a test” is kind of our class mantra.  “We will do this together until you can do this alone” provides a positive statement about learning.  I love the idea that if students work hard in each class, then they will be ready to excel on each test.  That connection should be obvious, I think.  Do your students have that belief?

However, students are human and they have often suffered through a lot of “interesting” education over the years.  As each test draws near, they often become stressed out and fall back on bad study habits.  Therefore, before the last hourly test of the spring semester, I sent them the following email.  I call this my Five C’s for Testing.  I want them to focus on certain positive attributes of the testing process and how they should react.  If they have done the work during class, then they should be able to do well on the test.  In testing, my goal is to help them show me what they have truly learned.  Ultimately, I would love for each student to be able to say, “I learned the material during our class sessions so I was able to demonstrate that on the test.”  That, for me, is a worthy goal.   And, I think the Five C’s for Testing helps get the students to that goal.

Helping students to be successful is clearly a worthy goal for every teacher.

Email to my students four days before their last hourly exam of the semester.

Now, just a word of two of advice.  As I have said before, I am a believer in the five C's for testing (and for life in general).

Calm -- getting nervous does not do you any good.  Take a walk and let your muscles and your brain relax to help get yourself calm.   Don't skip sleep because lack of sleep will kill your calmness.

Careful -- read the questions carefully and don't make silly mistakes.  2 + 2 is not 5.   I try to write each question so that the words tell you what to do.  Read them carefully.  Use your hand or a straight-edge to focus your attention on each individual line.

Connect -- regardless of what you might think, the questions do not come from outer space.  In my mind, there is always a direct connection between each question and something we have done in class.   You were here.   You paid attention.  When you face a question, ask yourself how we did something similar in class.  Nothing is more important on this test than these three words, “Make The Connection.”

Concentrate -- students always seem to be worrying about 1,000 things -- the room temperature, someone coughing, a bug walking across a table.   When you get to this test, only one thing should be on your mind -- what do the words to the first question tell you.  Then the second question and so on.  For those 80 minutes, nothing should be on your mind except the specific question you are working on and how it ties in with what we have learned in class.

Confidence -- you are all bright people.   Never doubt that.  Don't play scared.   You have earned good grades before.   You have taken hundreds if not thousands of tests.  You got accepted to this university because the admissions experts thought you should do well.  Whether you are hitting a golf ball or shooting a free throw or taking a college-level test, it is hard to win if you don't believe in yourself.  I believe in you.   Don't ever forget that.

A test is necessary for grading, but if you can help your students become successful, it will be amazing how much more important the entire learning process will become to them.  It should be just one more essential element in that learning.

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