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Returning exams: making the end a new beginning…

January 4, 2011

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:

View this document on Scribd

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.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2011 11:23 pm

    Good, I’m glad you found a system that has worked out. I too hate the “what did you get” questions myself.

  2. January 8, 2011 11:09 am

    J, I really love this handout. I share with you the pain of
    returning exams. Here sit a bunch of fresh-faced, eager students…
    I am so happy to see them again after the break… It just feels
    like the return of exams is equivalent to a bucket of cold water
    being thrown in your face. So, I love the framing you gave the
    students. and, the problems to solve. That’s fascinating. I had
    never considered doing group-based problem-solving as a direct
    build off of my exam. What I esp like about is that it helps create
    that sense of continuity for the students in terms of mastery of
    the material. Throughout the day, I overheard lots of comments (and
    read some written ones) that exams were just a chance for teachers
    to retest kids on things they already knew and then leave it all
    behind. I need to think about how I’ll handle this differently in
    my own class next year. You may have said this already, but did you
    give back exams before giving them this workheet or not? (could
    they use their exam answers in the building of their new work,
    bascially?)

    • January 8, 2011 6:19 pm

      I gave out the handout first, and got the kids to start talking about the problems, and then I started handing out exams, and they were certainly free to use the exams while working on these problems. As exam returning goes, I would say it was the lowest stress moments, and the presentations the kids did to explore problems in greater depth were pretty great. I have a couple on film, so I’lltry to post them soon.

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