Returning exams: making the end a new beginning…
On the first day back in the second semester, we are charged with returning exams. This can be a really awful day. Give back exams, give out grades, and spend the rest of your day arguing over points and and averages, while overhearing students gripe and moan in the hallway about this grade or that. Moreover, I think some students absolutely dread the day, not necessarily because of the grades they get (though this can bring its share of tears), but because they have to deal with an endless chorus of “what’d you get” from their peers. This is part of why I’m trying to get a conversation going about reining mindless conversation about grades (and we’re making some awesome progress, which I need to blog about).
I know there are lots of students who get through the day just fine, tear-free, without succumbing to obsession with grades. But are there students that thrive on this day, the same way a great coach or captain thrives on the day after the big game, regardless of a win or loss, when going over film, making plans for the next practice and thinking about how to consistently improve? This is the atmosphere I hope to create in my class.
I tried to do this today by giving my kids this handout, before returning exams:
The handout starts with this statement from me:
So this is my dream for you, that you’ll see the this exam, and even this course, as only beginning of the journey. I hope you’ll see that your path is not marked by my questions; it is marked by your questions, and you have the power to develop the tools you will need to find and answer these questions.
At best, exams like this can only be a sort of playful scrimmage, where you learn to find your questions by playing some questions I’ve found interesting. But if you are to ever get past the scrimmage, and play the real game you need to carefully look for opportunities to depart the text,
explore your reasoning, to find flaws in your thinking, and to chase the questions you discover.
This is only the beginning. Consider these questions on the next few pages the lightest of starts.
The rest of the handout is a series of extension questions I came up with about the problems from my exams. So for my double period lab today, I asked the students to work in groups to deepen their understanding of one of the problems on the exam. They should feel free to consider the questions I asked, but I would hope that in thinking about the problem, they would begin to think about the questions they had about the question. After students worked on their problem for about 20 minutes, and whiteboarded some notes, I asked each group to give 10 minute presentations.
This turned out to be a great plan. My students’ presentations were great. Here’s a video of one of my classes. It’s password protected, but if you DM me via twitter, I’ll give you the password.
Most of them were able to start to think about their own questions about the problem they studied, taking more ownership in raising and answering their own questions. And unlike years past, I didn’t have a single student ask if they could get rid of all their notes/work from last semester (this is always one of the saddest things I hear). Maybe this is a sign they’re taking a bit more ownership of their learning, and seeing the new beginnings that spring from looking deeper something that was once “final.”