The first test of an academic term can be stressful for students, but we faculty also endure anxiety. I’m sure I was not alone when I would hold my breath as I and my graduate assistants passed out the tests. My mind would be racing: “Did I make enough copies?” I’d worry even though I’d recounted them three times just the night before. But when you have 350 students in class, not having enough tests is the stuff of nightmares—at least for me. The building I taught in was nearly 2 blocks from my departmental xerox machine, so if I had made a mistake, it would be a real mess!
I also think many faculty worry about other mundane issues, like did the copier skip one page of the test or did I make a typo which changed the meaning of the question, or a mathematical mistake which made a problem more difficult than intended.
These are typical “before the test” faculty worries, but for many of us, the day we pass back the first test ratchets up our anxiety. I’m a big believer in showing students the test data, such as what % of the class earned each letter grade, the range of scores, and so on. This information, however can be weaponized by some students, against the faculty member. How many of us have heard comments like, “I’m an A student but I failed your test—you must be a bad teacher” or “You just don’t know how to write a fair test” or “You tricked us,” etc. Trust me, these kind of comments can sting!
Here are some pedagogical tips to get through:
1) Take time to go over the test with students in class. But I encourage you to primarily let students teach other students the correct answers and why. Break students into groups (I suggest getting them up and mixing with other students than those they sit with all the time—they frequently study with those same students and therefore might have made similar mistakes) and give them time to work through the test. I made 5-8 versions of each test and color coded the paper each was on, so I asked students to find others they didn’t know who had the same color test and get together and work through the answers. [I did statistics on each version and knew that no one had worse scores than others, so this felt like a good way to get students to meet each other and focus.] I would let them work together for 15 minutes.
Then I would ask students from each version of the test what were the top 2 questions they still had about why an answer was wrong/what was the correct answer. I answered those with the entire class (this also helped to prove that the versions were different, something many students didn’t believe prior to the first test). But after that, I had my graduate assistants pick up the tests. Letting students who received unexpectedly bad grades “simmer” too long with the test in front of them, I found, was not a good idea. I kept all tests and students were welcome to come at any time of the term to see them again, study from them, etc.
2) Before we picked up the tests, I asked students to write me a note above their name on the 1st page of the test if they had still had questions about what was a correct answer or if they had questions about the mathematical data I had put on the test. I listed their test score (X/75 points, usually) as well as their current class average in class, including all points (not just the test). If they felt a question was misgraded, I asked them to write me a note explaining why. That afternoon, after class, I first alphabetized all the tests and then responded to each student who wrote me a note. I sent e-mails in the learning management system. Even if I was correct, I answered the student with a short message explaining why her or his answer was incorrect. Usually only two percent of the students left notes, so this didn’t take that long, but they knew they had been heard. And if I had made a grading error, I first corrected it in the online gradebook and then wrote the student, so that he or she could see the change had already occurred.
3) Recognize that how you construct your tests could amplify student anxiety. Ten percent of my 2nd and 3rd tests in a term were cumulative questions. This exacerbated student test anxiety because now they also had to review “older” material, not just material covered since the last test. I believe in the value of these cumulative questions [they were always based on what concepts students had missed the most on the earlier test(s)], because knowledge is cumulative. But trust me, I heard about that ten percent of the test so often on my student evaluations, and rarely were they good comments! I believe that essay tests can also increase anxiety in many students new to college-level writing requirements. In part this is because they feel they are being assessed on both their writing skills and their content knowledge. To help with that anxiety, I didn’t grade on writing skills—but I did make corrections and comments about writing (I don’t know how to stop doing that and I didn’t really want to, anyhow!). For first year college students I defined “essay” broadly—it could be an outline of what an essay would be, so long as every sociological concept was defined and had an original example or it could be incomplete sentences, so long as they focused on the sociological content required. In junior and senior level courses, I expected students to write a more refined answer to an essay test, but again, in those classes, I had weekly in-class essays to assess learning and I helped students to develop the writing, reading, and thinking skills to do well before the first test.
4) Admit if you made errors, either in the construction of the test or in the grading of it. Use that moment to teach students about taking responsibility and fixing our mistakes. Once I misnumbered one version of a test and students who had that version only had 70 instead of 75 questions. I added an additional 5 points to those students’ test scores before they even saw their returned test and before I posted the scores to the online grade book. But I still admitted it to the entire class and apologized. Faculty are, before all else, human, and we make mistakes just as our students can make them. Make mistakes and taking responsibility for them part of the learning process in your classroom.
5) I believe that announcing not just the date of the test, but the structure of the test, in advance, matters. When I was in college, I don’t remember studying differently for a test based on the structure of it, but I have had hundreds of students tell me that they do, so I announce test dates in the syllabus (so they have them from the first day of class) and I announce the structure of the test at least 2 weeks before the date of the test. I say it frequently in class, post it on the learning management system, sent an e-mail in the LMS, and also announced it on our class’ Facebook page. Thanking me for this “early warning” of the test structure was the most repeated, positive comment I received on my Intro to Sociology student evaluations.
Taking that first test, grading it, and returning it will be anxiety-producing for you and for your students. But these tips could help minimize the anxiety in ways that could help you and your students get through this crucial moment in the academic term successfully.
So readers, what are your tips to reduce anxiety (for you or your students) about the first test? Please share in the comments.
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