Surviving the First Test of the Term

Green chalkboard with word "Exam" written on it; paper and pen also visibleThe 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!

Woman teacher, head in hands, looking very stressedI 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.

Desk with laptop open, notebook, glasses, pen, and calculator -- someone is studying3) 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.

In what looks like handwriting, sign says "Oops! I made a mistake. What can I learn from it?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.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing or coaching about writing.


Friend, Parent, or the Grey One? Faculty Status Can Change over Time

White female teacher lecturingI began full-time teaching at age 27. I must have looked even younger; my school’s librarians didn’t let me check out AV materials, without requiring my faculty ID card, until I turned 32. Faculty from other departments sometimes assumed that I was a senior or a graduate student—I could tell by the way they would “talk down” to me until someone clarified my status for them. And students often remarked on “how young you look.” Some even questioned my credentials for teaching them (despite my having a Ph.D.).

For the first decade of my career, students often interacted with me as if I were their “friend” more than as their professor. I noticed this especially when they approached me about forgetting an assignment or asking me to bend my “no late work” policy “just for them, this once.” They’d say, “You’re young; you know how it is—a party popped up on my floor, and so I forgot about your assignment.” Because of my age, they readily assumed that I would empathize with their lack of responsibility. Many were stunned at my reply to their “I got so drunk last night, sick, vomiting, I just couldn’t concentrate on the assignment. You know how that is.” Actually, I didn’t. Due to several allergies to ingredients in beer and spirits, I have never been drunk in my life. When I told them that, they looked sad for me, but also upset that their attempt at peer-bonding didn’t work out like they had planned.

But with increasing age, students’ contacts with me changed. They often interacted with me as if I were their mom. I heard lots of roommate or significant other stories when they would drop by to talk during office hours. I also heard painful stories of childhood sexual abuse, rape, and domestic violence. They would often start telling me their story by saying, “I know I can trust you, like I could a parent.” As one of two female professors in a large department, much of my time was spent helping these students decide to report, to move to a shelter, or go for counseling. It helped that I was on the board of directors for our town’s domestic violence shelter and had been active in rape survivor movement since college. I learned that I needed all the local phone numbers of community agencies which could support my students as well as all the legal and counseling services on campus. I probably walked twenty-five or more students to our Counseling Center across campus and called on a student’s behalf (and with the student’s consent) to get an appointment for counseling, double or triple that amount. I remember being asked ten times to go with students to the Health Department as they learned the results of their HIV/AIDS tests. And I was the person several students “practiced on” as they gained the courage to tell their parents about being pregnant or coming out. During this decade of my career, students tended to be pretty forthright about why an assignment was late—or if they were not, I could “look” a certain way at them, and they would become more honest.

Side profile of woman with grey hair; bob cut, no features are visibleDuring the last decade of teaching, what some friends fondly called “my greying years” (referring to my hair), I heard much less of my students’ pain. They now turned to some of the younger female faculty in the department to share those stories. I did my best to share my list of resources with those colleagues and offered to act as their sounding boards, because I knew how exhausting that emotional labor could be—and that other than my husband, I rarely had a support system to help me when students were sharing their pain with me. Now, when students talked to me about missed work and such, they often didn’t even tell me a/the reason for the work being late. When I asked why not, some would look down and away and say things like, “I know I messed up; I don’t want to bother you with the reason why.” To me at least, it felt like my age was becoming a barrier to deeper communication with my students. I felt like the “grandmother” they didn’t want to upset or let down.

I’ve thought a lot about whether there were other possible reasons for the changing interaction with my students. I normally told students that they could call me either “Dr. L” or “Dr. Lowney” (usually only graduate classes did I encourage students to call me “Kathe”), so I don’t think that was a major factor in how students saw my status. Students didn’t seem to understand clearly academic statuses such as “Temporary Assistant Professor,” “Assistant Professor,” “Associate Professor,” or “Professor,” so I don’t think my changing titles made that much of a difference to them.

Group of college students in the university amphitheatre, they are sitting and listening to a lecture. Rear view. The one other variable which might have impacted student interaction with me, was class size. From 2009-2018, I taught at least one class that enrolled 200 or more students (usually it was between 300 and 350 students). Despite all the ways that I tried to interact with each student (e.g., talking with different students before or after class, sending friendly (individually written) emails about their successes in the class and encouraging ones to students who were struggling, and learning most all their names, I fear that being in a larger class might have made more social distance between my students and I (plus the grey hair/aging variable!). Still, I saw the same response in the smaller, upper division courses I also taught, so this is an incomplete explanation. I worry that it might have prevented students from help-seeking behavior with me (simultaneously, I noticed more Introduction to Sociology students were turning to my graduate assistants more than me regarding going to office hours, emailing requests for help, etc.).

Thinking about this has intrigued me and engaged my sociological imagination. Am I the only faculty member who has experienced such changed interactions with students? What evidence did you see in your career? And is this a primarily an issue that happens to female faculty? I think in part, it is. I remember talking with a male sociology colleague when the “parent” stage was occurring and he looked at me, flabbergasted. He had never had a student tell those kinds of deeply personal stories to him. And my husband, a professor at the same university, but in the natural sciences, had less than a handful of students disclose personal stories to him in 33 years of teaching there.

So readers, are you experiencing such changes in how students interact with you? Let’s talk about this!

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing or coaching about writing.



What Moving Has Taught Me about Teaching…And Myself

Several empty cardboard moving boxesI have moved 4 times in my adult life. First, from one room in a house redesigned for graduate students, where I lived for 5 years to our first apartment as a married couple. That involved a transition from New Jersey to Georgia. Then we moved to a bigger apartment across town, for a few years. My third move was from that bigger apartment to our house, where we lived for 29 years. And a few weeks ago, we sold our house and moved again. We’d planned to move directly to the house that we’re building on top of a mountain, but alas, it isn’t done. So we’re in one cabin for 10 days and then a 2nd cabin for probably 6 weeks, until the house is completed.

So what has the “moving a house and 2 adults” process taught me?

Several moving boxes, each with different label: kitchen, dishes, bedroom, and booksOrganizing can reduce stress, at least for me. For the last six months, we’d go out to breakfast on Sundays and plan out our week—our goals for packing; what companies we needed to update addresses (mailing and email) and phone numbers; and other goals for the week. Sometimes I’d bring some paper, other times we’d write the list on napkins. Inevitably many lists got lost (we’ll probably find them when we finally unpack!). I finally realized we needed a “book of lists.” So I bought a notebook and created sections for different types of lists: a week by week section; the “week before we move” section; the “day of the move” section; “two weeks after the move” section, and so on. We’d add or expand each list as needed, dating the change so that we knew which was the latest version. We took “the book” with us every Sunday, or when we drove across states to meet with our contractor or other skilled tradespersons, etc. We noticed that being able to find our lists easily made life less stressful.

We also coded every box: a number for the floor; a 2 letter code for the room; and a box number. We created one spreadsheet with a tab for each room. We entered each box number and a brief description of what was included. Our mover wanted an approximate number of boxes and we wanted to be sure we didn’t lose any, since the move took three days and it would be weeks before we’d be unpacking. Our movers joked that I was the most organized client he’d ever seen–not sure if that was supposed to be a compliment, but I took it as one!

For me, having my courses planned out in advance, via the syllabus helped me to meet the learning goals and learning outcomes that I and others expected that my students and I would meet. I knew, within reason, what we should be doing when and why.

Many students feel syllabi are documents which can help them to stay organized. They less often realize that syllabi also help keep faculty organized and on track. Knowing what we needed to cover helps all of us from going off on a tangent.

Be flexible, because something always happens. No matter how organized one is, prepare for something to happen that you hadn’t planned on occurring. A Monday was day 1 of our move. We were up at 5; the movers were coming at 8, and I had plans to be on the road by 6 AM. About 5:30 my husband and I took the last few armfuls of items to fill up my car—and the battery was dead, the doors wouldn’t open. We jumped the car just enough to get it to the Subaru dealership. I get there about 6:30 AM, but they don’t open until 8:30. So I sat there, reading an e-book, just waiting. I went there because this very thing had happened 3 times the week of July 4th, and it took 11 days to get the parts needed (the entire computer system had to be replaced). I wasn’t about to drive 7 hours when it looked like the problem had reappeared. Luckily they found that this time, it was a fuse not completely situated, that had drained the battery and I was on my way to our new life, just 3 hours delayed.

TText says: "Expect the unexpected." Image of what appears to be a green apple, but actually has orange slices insideeaching means being prepared for the unexpected, be it an illness (family member or ourselves), or in the South, a hurricane or tornado, or in the Midwest or Northeast, a snow storm, and so on. As professors, most of the structure of our class is shaped by us. That means we need to plan for the unexpected. After the 2nd hurricane interrupted fall classes one year in Valdosta, I learned that for each section of my Introduction to Sociology class, I had to identify 2 topics/days which, if needed, I could either cut or shift the content primarily to online without significantly impacting student success. Do you plan for the unexpected as you construct your syllabi? If you do, when things happen—and they will—you and your students will be less stressed and more able to pick up and keep on learning.

Identify how you can destress in healthy ways. Moving and teaching can both be stressful activities. While one (moving) is more short-term than the other, both can create physical and emotional stress. So do you have healthy ways to let go of the stress and relax? This summer my husband and I have found one way to destress—we watch BattleBots, a show on the Discovery Channel about robots fighting. We enjoy the technical skills of the crews, the creativity in designing the robots, and the personalities of the owners and drivers. It was a gift of 2 hours a week where we could get outside of ourselves and enjoy the battles and each other, without thinking of the stresses of building a house, construction delays, and moving.

Teaching is a profession I love, but it too could be stressful. It can be more difficult to understand the amount of stress one is under though – many others would wonder how teaching “just a few hours a week” (ha ha!) could create stress. So I tried to destress at least once a week. Often that meant going to a movie on Friday afternoon. I liked to go alone (and sometimes I would be the only person watching a particular movie!) as a way to unwind and destress. I also like to knit; it allows me to focus on something else other than preparing for classes and grading in a way that would relax me. For others it might be yoga, exercise, meditation, or time out with friends.

So here we are, at the second cabin on a Sunday afternoon. It’s been almost a month since we moved from Valdosta and we don’t know when we’ll move into our house. All we can do is go along for this wild ride of building a house and moving. For those of you about to start another academic year—be ready. You don’t know what might shake up your carefully constructed plans for your classes. Figure out what you need to do to cope with the profession we love, but which also can stress us out. Be healthy!

How do you destress from teaching, grading and all that goes with the academic life? Share in the comments. Your idea might just help someone else out.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing or coaching about writing.

Faculty-created Study Guides: Student Success’ Friend or Foe?*

Perhaps the question students asked me the most during my 32 years of teaching was “Will you give us a study guide for the test?” I heard it from first year students, upper division majors, and from graduate students. My answer was always the same: “No, I won’t make one but I’m very happy to give you tips on how to create one that will be useful to you for my tests.” Students were usually upset by that answer; they wanted what I believe is a large part of the learning process, done for them, by me.

Why might students want a study guide created for them? From what I have learned, many high school teachers either choose to or are required to provide them to students. So it is not unusual for students to ask their college professors to do the same. This might also explain their heightened emotions when professors like me say “No.” So try to keep that in mind—asking the question is their “normal.” We have to work with them to change their definition of the situation, I believe.

Instead of offering a study guide, I coach students on how to use the readings, their class notes, and the PowerPoints I provide them after every class to create learning activities to aid in their learning. I encourage students to create reading summaries each time more reading is assigned. Then I show them how I might construct possible test questions about that content. I encourage them to do the same thing, every day. That way they will have built up a large number of questions (e.g., true or false, multiple choice, fill in blank, short answer, and essay) to assess how well they are learning the material.

Often in the first three weeks of the term in my Introduction to Sociology class, where most were first year students, I would post one or two test questions on an online discussion board or email them to the entire class, to help them learn the level of complexity my test questions would be. I announced the structure of the test usually two or three weeks in advance, so students could adjust their studying based on that information, if they felt the need to do so.

Group of students studyingOften students created study groups and collectively created a study document. Many told me they had done it but never asked me to look at it. Relatively few groups asked for my comments. I made two types of general comments: first, if they had covered the breadth of material which would be on the test, and secondly, if there were obvious errors, I pointed out to the group that they might want to go back over that particular section of their review document (for example, I might say “You might want to review the symbolic interactionist theorists covered on this test more closely), without specifically saying where the error was. Most groups would email me within 24 hours, saying something like, “We found it! We had an error in the stages of Mead’s socialization theory, didn’t we?” Then I would confirm that that was the error. I wanted them to find the error, not me.

I also had a daily “exit question” assessment, where each student had to write me a question about something from that day’s class content, about which the student was still confused. Or the student could create an original example of a concept and ask me if it “worked.” I handwrote answers to these questions every day and then I posted the most frequently asked  questions (usually 3-5 per day) and their answers on an “Exit Question” online discussion board in the learning management system. This was posted later each evening when we had class. I encouraged students to ask questions about those answers and to use these as part of their reviewing for the test, since I felt these were the most confusing aspects of what we had been learning—important enough to post online for them to review!

Male student, head down on desk, surrounded by books and paper, cup of coffeeI also had online review sessions in the learning management system the week before the test and the Monday before the test (I scheduled tests on Thursdays so that I could have the weekend to grade). My graduate assistants and peer tutors also increased their office hours the week before and week of the test and they had extra review sessions (they often gamified these reviews, using Kahoot or similar software) at various times throughout the day, to which all students were invited. The Tuesday class before the test all we did was a 40-question review session, created solely by me using “clickers.” So students had a variety of ways, times, and ways to assess their learning, many guided by me. I felt providing a study guide was a step beyond where I felt comfortable to go as a professor.

I know and accept that (some? many?) faculty would disagree with me about not providing a faculty-created study guide. So let’s talk about this. What do you think? Post in the comments or tweet using #yesnostudyguides.

*Note: I write my blog posts at least 1 month in advance of posting them. But I wanted to share that a much more famous pedogogical-blogger, Dr. Maryellen Weimer, posted this yesterday on this same topic.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing or coaching about writing.


Dear Parent Sending Firstborn Off to College

Reposting this at the start of this next academic year.

1) There will be a few rough days ahead — when your son/daughter calls you with a tale of woe. Faculty will likely be the “main characters” in the plot. Please recognize that there might be more to the story than you are being told.

2) College is different than high school. There are less opportunities for students to escape from their errors; put differently, expect some times ahead where students will tell you that they missed an assignment and “the faculty member won’t let me turn it in late.” True enough – work is due on time.

3) A bad test grade will be just that — one bad grade that “stands,” not the first of many attempts at taking the test, like in many high school curricula. Help your student to realize every point matters during the semester – cramming at midterm or the final is not a good way of learning the material, long term. Students can recover from a bad test, if they decide to focus more, perhaps change how they study, and start studying sooner (cramming doesn’t work!).

4) Faculty want your student to succeed, but your student will have to create more of an internal motivation to do homework, read texts, etc., than in high school. Many of us don’t remind students of assignments — that is the student’s job to know when work is due. He or she has to study because it matters to her or him, not to you, not to the faculty member. We would welcome if you could partner with us to help your student understand why a course is required.

5) Learning time management will take a while but faculty and staff have lots of ideas to help — but we’re not empaths, we don’t read minds. Encourage your student to come to office hours, if s/he is struggling, even if your student doesn’t know how to ask questions. We want to help! And if they don’t even know what to ask, that’s okay too. Come in and tell me what is the last concept they understood and we’ll go from there.

6) College is different; students who succeeded without learning strong study habits in high school might struggle for a while in college, until they learn study habits. Please help us to help your student: if they talk about issues with studying, ask them if they have a planner, if they are ‘touching’ every class at least every other day (and ideally, every day). Ask if they’ve talked with us and encourage them to come see us — I promise, WE DON’T BITE! Sure, we can have a bad day every now and then, but we want your student to succeed too — it makes class time more enjoyable for all of us when things are going well for most or all of the class!

7) Faculty are not sadists; students sometimes think we are, though. Many of us assign students homework, online quizzes, etc., most days out of the week because brain science says that the more a person works with new material, the more the person will learn it deeply (versus just memorize it for the quiz or test).

8) Core curriculum class content should fit together and deepen students’ skills (e.g., reading and interpreting the written word, writing, mathematics and calculating, communication, knowledge of how US society works, etc.); our university’s core tries to weave together a solid foundation for the student’s major courses, which will narrow and focus their interests. We’d love it if you asked your student to try to integrate the knowledge from more than one course. It’s a skill needed to succeed at college and even more, on the job.

So these next few weeks, you’ll likely hear about us from your student. We’ll be supportive but also pushing your student intellectually. There will be forward progress and then perhaps a few steps backwards. That’s okay—it’s what the first year of college is like for most students. Faculty and staff are here – not as replacements for you – but as guides, mentors, and role models.

Let’s make this a good year for your student.