Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Did We Learn from Midterms?

In sixteen years of midterms and finals, Regents exams (New York) and CMT/CAPT exams (here in Connecticut), I have never walked away from an exam period feeling so battered and bruised.

Now, I'll admit, I'm sure the students feel twice as worn and weary as I do. They had to organize all of their materials and then study. And then, as a reward, they got to take all of those exams. And this, right after turning in all of the work they owed as it was the last week of the 2nd quarter. So, even those who didn't prepare well for exams (ie, organize, make a cheat sheet, bring a cheat sheet to school when the teacher allowed it) still had to sit through those hours of agony, reading multiple choice questions, addressing short answer topics, and attempting to formulate persuasive essays that weren't just five paragraphs worth of shoveled manure. Test takers of the world unite. You have my sympathy!

But what I am writing about today is the self-pity I felt during our exam week. I had recently spent two days working with another teacher (Ms. Gratz) in each of our freshmen World History classes on study skills and then saw evidence that no more than half of the students had studied. I worked in classes in which the teachers invited their students to create a cheat sheet for use during the exam... and then watched helplessly as freshman after freshman after freshman walked into the exam period without said cheat sheet. And the problems with test preparation weren't just for our underclassmen. It went all the way to the top where some hybrid form of senioritis and immaturity led our 12th graders to neglect their studies.

I am generalizing because I do not have data to back up these claims; simply my observations. But trust me, I don't lose sleep over hyperbole and hypotheses. I lose sleep when I see stressed out kids and stressed out teachers. I lose sleep when I know something's serioulsy wrong and that it's my job to do something about it. I lose sleep when I don't know what the heck to do.

I'm open to suggestion, but I think that one way to focus our energy (I have a theory that sleeplessness is caused by energy that simply needs to find a productive way to be expended, but more on that at a later time!), as a school, is by looking ahead to final exams. I don't think CAPT is a great opportunity for helping our kids to apply lessons learned from past mistakes, but final exams sure can be. And across the board, I've heard that the kids recognize the error of their apathetic ways. Mea culpa! Mea culpa! Mea culpa! What we can do is try yet again to use direct instruction to improve their study skills. We can get parents involved by informing them that a cheat sheet will be allowed. We can arrange group "cheating sessions", after school. What else can we do? I don't really know. I am sleep-deprived, after all!

I'm hoping that you out there will have some ideas on how we can better prepare our students for the next go round. All input is welcomed.


  1. I think the way content is taught will make a difference on how a student will perform on a test. I think its important to mix authentic assessment with practice tests for state testing. College prep tests and state tests are difficult to study for because they are testing all comes down to strategy. I particularly like Larry Bell's vocabulary and reading strategies. Aren't all tests about reading skills also? Maybe we should start there :)

  2. Reading skills and vocabulary were a huuuuge problem the first half of this year, in both instruction and assessment. I work mostly with freshmen and am trying to develop a program to better introduce our kids to our aquaculture (both science and tech) program. As part of that I asked academic teachers to give me some key words, but that didn't seem to help. I will definitely look into Larry Bell. Thanks!

  3. As I work with largely the same group of students you are referring to, I can obviously feel your pain and frustration. My largest struggle is dealing with the apparent apathy of many of the lower-level students, which is likely a learned behavior in many who have struggled their whole lives and often failed - the old, "I'd rather look like a lazy bastard than stupid" belief. I think I've been somewhat successful in at least occasionally fostering a sense of desire to be successful when the students are in the classroom with me, but I have struggled with how to get students to carry that with them outside of the walls of the classroom. In other words, I have no idea! I'll think on it a while and get back to you with any amazing inspirations that come to me in my fleeting moments of sleep.

  4. As a SpEd teacher, I am always trying to figure out how to get my kids to generalize the skills I've taught them. I wonder how much of it, performance-wise, has to do with the confidence that comes with having a trusted teacher there in a one-on-one or small group situation versus taking a test in a large group and, even before that disastrous exam period, trying to put together the cheat sheet while all alone at home...

  5. I have similar issues with my students, and with school not being a priority in most of these kids' lives, it is sincerely frustrating.

    I co-teach a math class for the 6-8th graders at a school for kids with severe emotional disabilties. I think because we get them early, we are at more of an advantage than in the HS years.

    In any event, last Thurs., I gave a math test, and for the first time in 9 months, I had 1 kid actually use his notes without a reminder, and another said that he'd prefer a step-by-step checklist over using his notes! These 2 kids about bowled me over!

    I think the concept of using the tools we give them finally may have sunk in!

    The kids are encouraged to think about the concept of transitioning pretty much each day becuase that is our goal as a school--get them back to their home school. As a result they are reminded that we, as thier teachers, won't be there forever, and that they need to advocate for themselves.

    I think it takes getting them early, and to continually have the concept of cheat sheet or other support drilled into them for every class for it to sink in just a little bit.

    So from here, I'm not sure where it'll go for these kids, but the praise they got for using good student skills hopefully will stick for the next time.

  6. Good to hear some good news, Mere. Congrats and thanks for sharing!

  7. I have found that when students are presented with reasons to "buy into" their learning they want to be prepared. Giving open notebook quizzes and options for assessments help them to connect.

  8. Worth a read: