We’re both mining the result of a student’s test score and he confesses this to me. “I just – I freeze up on tests. I understand this stuff but I just don’t put the right answers down on tests.” I vacantly nod my head and we continue going through the student’s test together, where the barrage of explanations continues.
I don’t get into the epistemology of whether or not students are telling the truth when they tell me they don’t do well on tests because they don’t do well on tests. The most immediate reason I don’t is because, even if I think the statement is true or false, often the student believes in the statement enough to make it. They may be lying to me about it, but it’s also possible they’re lying to themselves about it. And, if I were to accuse them of lying when they think they’re telling me the truth, I’ve lost them, probably for good.
Sometimes I feel like my job is showing students that they don’t always know what they don’t know. My students have made it to college – they’ve achieved, and they know how to succeed in an academic environment. They’ve probably passed lots of math classes before, although often without knowing exactly how or without feeling like they’ve achieved mastery of the material. (Me, too!) All of a sudden, in college their pathways to success aren’t successful anymore.
Some teachers I know say that high school is being watered down to accommodate them; as a former high school teacher I know that this isn’t true, and also that high school teachers sometimes say that middle school has been watered down, to which elementary school has been watered down. At some point this becomes silly. The point remains, though, that a different set of skills may be required to succeed in a college environment. Some of this undoubtedly boils down to how to handle the greater degree of freedom in a Higher Ed environment, but other times it’s how to make academic connections, how to achieve academic grit, or how to make the best use of one’s studying time through using study skills effectively.
How do I try to show students what they don’t know before I show them what they do know? I have a few ways:
1) Pretest everything, and talk about the limits of pretesting. I try to make sure in my classes that my students know what to expect – but also that pretesting has its limits. When taking pretests, students have unlimited time, have access to their notes and other resources, and can look at the answers to check their work immediately. None of those are true of actual tests.
2) Be comfortable with failure. I don’t know everything and there are times students ask me questions to which I don’t know the answers. We learn from failure, not from success, so I try to use my many failures as teachable moments to become better. Sometimes it even works!
3) Be candid about what failure means. If a student says, “I don’t do well on tests, but I know the material”, what does that mean? I can’t assess by opening up someone’s brain – I’m only an amateur brain surgeon, after all – so where do we go from there? I have to be fair, so I really don’t like to use different assessment for different students, so we have to see what makes tests bad for the student.
4) Be open to new ideas. Not knowing what one doesn’t know is walking on quicksand – even the facts one believes fall apart. I try to not show the exceptions to any rule too quickly, but it’s important to note that most ways we construct to solve problems aren’t universal … and, in building our own, and subjecting them to rigor, we self-actualize our own success.