How Hard Should the First Test Be?

I gave my first test in Financial Accounting on Friday (if anyone wants to receive a copy, send me a note at I thought it was a very challenging test and I am reminded of the psychological impact of every first test. I give three tests and a final exam during a semester because I want students to have plenty of opportunity to show me what they have learned. However, I understand the special importance of the first test. It can shake the confidence of the best student. It can bolster the confidence of the most timid student. If I make the first test too easy, I worry that my students will feel that I have set the bar fairly low and that less work will be necessary to succeed. If I make the first test too hard, I worry that my students will feel overwhelmed. Everyone likes a challenge but only as long as they feel that success is not impossible to achieve.

What are my goals on any test? I want the students to feel it was fair. I want the students to realize they could have worked every question with a proper level of knowledge and thought. I want to cover a wide range of material so I get a legitimate view of what they know. I want to be able to clearly differentiate the students with excellent knowledge from those with good knowledge, poor knowledge, and so on.

But, for the first test, I want a bit more than that. I want to show the students the level of understanding that I seek. In many ways, the first test is a road map to the students for the rest of the semester. “This is the kind of understanding that I believe equates to an excellent level of knowledge.”

I once took a course in basketball coaching. The teacher eventually became an NBA head coach and then a television analyst. I remember him talking about the first practice: “You set the tone for the entire season at the first practice. Always remember: it is easy to get easier; it is hard to get harder.”

I follow that approach. So, my first test on Friday was pretty darn difficult (I thought). However, giving out all D’s and F’s just to make a point does not seem fair. I want to be challenging AND encouraging. For that reason, I gave a very hard test and then I applied a pretty steep curve. I wound up with 16 percent A’s, 40 percent B’s, 32 percent C’s, and 12 percent D’s. Today, I will go into class and we will chat about how they can grow from this experience. It is only a small part of their grade and if they learn what I’m looking for, there is no reason they cannot do better on the second test. I will be thrilled if they walk out of class today and say “now I see what he wants and I can do that with sufficient work.”

I want the first test to be a real challenge but I do not want it to ruin their confidence level.


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