HEADING STUDENTS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

I talk below about my first test of the current semester.   If you teach Financial Accounting and would like to see a copy of that test, drop me an email at Jhoyle@richmond.edu.
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I think the most important time during any semester is immediately after the first test. Until that time, the students have done what they thought you wanted them to do (or what they thought they could get away with). The first test gives them a chance to judge how well their class strategy has worked. If they need to make corrections in that strategy, this is the time to do it. You have their undivided attention, especially if they did not do as well as they would have liked.   They are young -- believe it or not, they usually appreciate some serious guidance.

You need to understand that most students are very used to doing X amount of work and getting Y grade. Many are well satisfied with that approach and that result. Others are not satisfied but have no clue what adjustments they need to make. Our school systems produce many students who are not very good at being what I call "learning students." For many students, their entire learning strategy consists of reading the chapter and marking key words with a highlighter.  That's a long way from developing critical thinking skills.

So, my first test is always demanding but not impossible (I’m not sure what giving an impossible test might accomplish). I try to cover a lot of different things we have covered during the weeks we have been together. If you have read my essay on testing circles, you know that I try to give questions slightly outside of the circle of information that we have covered in class – questions they should be able to figure out if they have understood the material well enough.

Some students do extremely well on the first test whereas others struggle. It’s at that moment that I want to push them all in the direction that I want them to go. First, I mail out an answer sheet which can help them gauge how they have done – most can look at that answer sheet for a few minutes and have a general idea whether they are pleased. I wait a few hours and then send them another email. In this second email, I want to tell them two things: (1) if you are not satisfied with how well you were prepared for this first test, here are some concrete ideas to try and (2) you can still do well in this class but you need to start making some improvements.   I do not want to leave them feeling lost and hopeless.

I’m not out to punish them.
I’m not out to make them feel guilty.
I just want them to do the work that is necessary to learn the material. And, I don’t want them to lose their confidence because that is the first step in a spiral downwards.
I don’t try to be a cheerleader who just gives them rah rah encouragement. I want them to know that they can still do well and show them the kinds of actions they can take in my class to get the grade they really want.

Here’s the email that I sent out to my Financial Accounting class yesterday.

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To: Accounting 201 Students

From: JH

I am working on your tests this morning. I might have them done by Monday but more than likely it will be Wednesday. They have looked just like every other test I’ve ever given in 201: They range from the brilliant to the not quite so brilliant. On some questions, I am thrilled by your ability to work through a complicated issue. You looked like geniuses. On other questions, I wanted to kick my cat because a simple concept seemed to elude you. But, in the heat of a test, it is easy to have ups and downs.

The primary purpose of a first test is help you gauge how you are doing. If you are satisfied with your grade, then I would keep on keeping on. Don’t get lazy and make any changes.

However, if you are not happy with your first grade, I have one piece of fatherly advice. In most cases, the way to raise a grade is to invest more time. Not more time the night before the test but more time each day. If you are spending 30 minutes a day, maybe you should spend 60 minutes. If you are spending 90 minutes a day, maybe you should spend 150. To quote Miss Piggy of the Muppets: “more is never enough.”

How could you spend more time? Here’s a check list – check off the ones that you are already doing. The ones you are not doing, consider starting. I read an article recently about LeBron James who is usually assumed to be the best basketball player in the world. The article basically talked about how hard he worked to get better. That’s what I want/need from you.

--Did you watch the opening video whenever we started a new chapter? I didn’t always assign the videos but they are always there. They help you know what to watch for in the chapter. They give you an outline structure before you read the first word.

--As you read the chapter, did you stop and do every single “test yourself” problem? That’s a key way to make sure you are catching on to what the reading is saying. And, if you missed the “test yourself” problem, did you keep working on the answer until you understood it? Never walk away without understanding.

--Did you spend some serious time getting ready for each class by working on each new sheet? Students often get good at “kinda knowing” material without ever “really knowing.” That “kinda knowing” often becomes way too obvious on a test.

--If there was a question on the daily assignment sheet that you couldn’t figure out, did you come by during my office hours to chat or send me an email lesson? I talk with a lot of students but clearly not all.

--Have you been gathering for 30 minutes before each class in order to have a serious conversation about the material on the sheets? Have you been using that as a way to prepare or as a way to check your preparation?

--After class (almost immediately after class) did you go back through the material to organize it to make sure you really understood it all? That organization after coverage can be the most important part of learning.

--When I sent out a problem by email, did you work it right then and check your answer?

--When I posted the answers to the end of chapter true-false and multiple-choice questions, did you work them right then and check your answer and not quit until you understood each answer?

--Did you watch the video at the end of the chapter where I list out the 5 most important things in the chapter? It is a great way to review because I am pointing directly at what I thought was important.

--Did you go over last semester’s test until you could work it backwards and forwards and upside down?

I realize that most of you are used to “one-hour” courses – they require about an hour a week in your leisure outside of class and you learn a little that you forget over Christmas. This is not a one-hour course and I don’t expect you to ever forget what you learn. Yes, you may have to party a little less. Yes, you may have less time for television or Facebook. Yes, you may have less time for computer games. Yes, you may have to get up a little earlier to study.

But you CAN do this. I believe that from the bottom of my heart. If you don’t have a check by everything on the above checklist, then there is clearly more that you can do.

The first test is merely 21.7 percent of your grade. Pick the grade you want on the second test RIGHT NOW and promise yourself that you will do whatever it takes to make that grade.


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