This stressful life

First test coming up — what I want students to know

It’s about one week until my first major test and you can feel the stress level rising every time my class meets. And I get it:

  • They are all first year students, most living in residence halls for the first time
  • They are getting to know their roommates; navigating cultural and privacy issues
  • They are learning our university culture, its norms, and its nomenclature
  • They are coping – to various degrees of success – with three types of technology in just my class: “clickers;” interactive software that comes with the text/ebook; and the university’s learning management system
  • They are on the road to figuring out time management skills as they balance 4 or 5 classes’ expectations, a social life, a private life, and for about 10 percent, a job
  • And let’s not forget last week, we all coped with a hurricane moving directly over/through our town, so add in no elevators, cold food, and a lack of power to charge all their devices . . . .

And yes, it makes for a fair amount of anxiety!

So what do I want to tell them, as I see most of them gearing up for “test cramming mode”?

I wish they would believe me that cramming is not a good study technique for my tests, and I believe, not for any test. What I want students to do is to study often, for much less time, and build up their neural/intellectual connections about and between the concepts that we are studying. Slow, steady studying “wins out” . . . if not on this test, then our next one, where everything on this test must be remembered to do well on what is to come. We’ve talked about the retrieval effect on memory (see Lang 2016) several times, but I worry it feels like more work than one long “all nighter” before the test.

I wish they’d believe me more when I talk about the level of difficulty built into my tests (especially the scenario-based true/false questions where they must know a concept well and then apply it to the scenario, and the essay questions). I overheard 3 of my students in Starbucks last week saying “She’s just trying to scare us into studying. Faculty always do that. They just think their tests are hard.” Perhaps. But perhaps I am talking about the deeper level of learning (way deeper than memorizing definitions!) because that is exactly what level most of the test will be. We’ll see next Thursday, won’t we?

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I wish I could be there when they see their score next weekend, especially for those who are disappointed or crushed by their scores. I want to say: “It’s one test on one day of your life. It doesn’t determine who you are or what you can become. . . unless you don’t learn from it.” Even in our class, while important, one test can be “recovered from” IF one chooses to do so. It means figuring out new ways to study for the next 2 tests, keeping up with the pre- and post-class quizzes, doing the two small extra credit options, etc. But it doesn’t mean their dreams for their futures are crushed forever. But I do want them to see their grade as a message: to take the time to build better study habits, to figure out time management for the rest of this semester, to be motivated about their own learning (don’t make me/their professors force them to become motivated), and to learn to read questions carefully and look for the clues I built into them!

For those who did well, I want to be with them too, in order to congratulate them and celebrate their achievement with them. But I also want to be sure their feet stay near the ground. I believe – and so many research studies show – that academic success is about routinizing what works! I worry some won’t take that away from their score, instead some might back off from doing the things that earned them that good grade. So I worry about overconfidence for a few. But I also worry about those who earned a good grade and call it a “fluke” or “luck” instead of owning their hard work as their own!

I also want them to know that it’s not fun knowing that they are stressed “because of me.” I know that isn’t really what’s happening, but that’s how many construct the stress that they are feeling this week and next. I’m trying ways to minimize that; I’ve sent pizza to one group who got together to review with me during my online hours and at the suggestion of my graduate assistant, at each evening supplemental review sessions, we’re having a raffle. She bought gift cards to local fast food (e.g., pizza and sub shops) and ice cream stores. Every student who comes to the review will get one copy of a ticket. Halfway through, she’ll pull tickets and give the winners a gift card. We think for the 7 review sessions that I’ll spend about $750. But I think that’s money well spent.

I know for many students – especially at test time – faculty are perceived to be “the enemy” who are making them suffer. I hate that social construction of our profession; I hate it with a passion. I am a person who wants each of my students to succeed. I am really worried about how this first test will go. But I also believe in the basic concept of my discipline: individuals are in interaction. My students and I; my students with each other in their learning communities, etc. I am fulfilling my status, though I am always trying to do it better.

But yesterday in a teaching circle as I was sharing my nervousness, two of my teaching mentors and colleagues both said that ultimately, “it’s on them now.” Next week, it is time for each of them to showcase their side of our interaction together. Sink or swim, I will be there to help. But it is now up to them. I wish each of them well.

*Lang, James M. 2016. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.