What to do?

My students took a test yesterday, and they failed. They failed so inexorably bad that I couldn't even berate them for it. There was no way that they could fail so horribly and I not share some of the blame.

I didn't do the arithmetic on the stats about their tests, but I'm guessing the median score was approx. 22/40, the average was 19/20 and the mode was 18.

When I finished grading them, my stomach felt as sick as a choleric prostitute in Mumbai (Yes, that's the simile I'm using. Just go with it). And, much like a choleric prostitue in Mumbai, I spent a lot of time staring at the ceiling wishing what had just happened was just the etching of a nightmare on the inside of my skull.

How could Frau Funkenhaus and I failed so miserably in our instruction? I was very careful to look over the entire test and certify that every question was something that we had previously covered in class. I have been working on all of the warm-ups (the problems on the board that students are supposed to work on immediately upon entering the room), and I was fastidious and fanatical about making sure they were relevant to exactly what we were supposed to be studying.

My warm-ups, in general, have between 2 and 5 questions. The first question is a review from the lesson two days previous. The second question is generally a synthesis of the previous two days' lessons. The final questions are review of the previous day. I am always sure to be building upon their knowledge and attempting to expand it beyond its current level.

For example: We studied the base units for the SI system in the chapter. So, my warm-up for every day after that was always in SI units. We then studied density, and I wrote warm-ups that incorporated density into the problems until the end of the chapter. After that, we studied experimental error/percent error. I wrote warm-ups using SI units, which had questions about density, and the densities determined through the problem were compared to the accepted value of densities of certain elements, which were then used to determine percent error. Finally, we studied accuracy and precision, for which I used SI-units in density problems that had to determine percent error based on accepted values of densities in order to figure out if the various answers for the density problems were precise or accurate. It was all quite involved.

So: What did this show me?

Problem 1: My students don't know how to take tests.

Many of them do not even attempt word problems, even though they are not all ELL. I can understand it (though not condone it) for ELL students, but students who speak English should never do this. They are just lazy. In addition: most of them don't know how to look for what the question is asking. They determine what they think the question is asking, then they guess, since most of the time their answer isn't actually on the page.

It was astonishing to see a number of students do absolutely no arithmetic on their tests, even though there were a number of problems that required mathematics.

After reading all of the tests, I came to the determination that some students don't believe that the tests will actually give you fair questions. We had one question that seemed simple. It went something like:

There are three trials for an experiment below, which one is the most accurate? The percent errors are given

Then below it, there was a heading that said Percent Error, and below that there were three choices:

Trial 1: .05
Trial 2: .02
Trial 3: .01

A majority of my students got this question wrong. Half of them did not answer it. It was as though they thought there was some trick to it, some sort of alchemical formula that they had to pull from their headspaces in order to answer it. The answer, of course, is Trial 3, since THE PERCENT ERROR IS EASILY THE LOWEST. It's not even tricky, yet they couldn't figure it out.

Problem 2: Students don't know what's important.

I've made it a policy to write all important notes on the board in black pen. Whenever I pick up a black pen, I ask the students, "Why am I picking up a black pen?" I will continue to ask this question until I am satisfied that every student knows how important the black pen is.

Having looked over their notes, however, I've come to realize that they just don't know what they're supposed to study. Too often, they focus their attention on minutia to the detriment of all other information. It's just insanity.

Problem 3: They don't feel embarrassed when they do poorly.

This is the saddest of all the problems, because it's one that I might not be able to help them work on. If students don't have any stake in their education, what point is there in learning? What point is there to anything, if they don't take pride in doing well and, conversely, feel shame at doing poorly? This is a systemic problem at my school, a one which I'm going to have to think about for a long time before I'll be able to come up with an even halfway-satisfactory answer.

First use of the "Choleric Prostitutes" tag


Em said...

I just stumbled on your blog and enjoyed browsing through your posts. As a teacher (English and Humanities) I am familiar with these feelings of frustation. Problem no.3 is of particular interest to me as I wrestle with it everyday. Good luck with your students.