Monday, March 9, 2009

Midterm Curve

“As it was, I had to find some way to pass the time and trick my students into believing that they were getting an education.”
--David Sedaris, from “The Learning Curve”

As I kid, when teachers said that they learn from us, I was always a little confused because I didn’t understand how something we could say could enlighten them. But the more I teach, the more I think the teachers were referring to what they learned about teaching, not about the particular subject being discussed.

So this past week, I assigned midterms. I don’t often assign exams in writing classes, but tests, like papers, give me a clear idea of what students are and are not learning. Besides the obvious lessening of the grading load, I really get a sense of who’s paying attention and taking detailed notes.

With papers, it’s a bit easier to hide behind good word choice and solid syntax like a child with a lisp who learns to avoid “s” words. But with tests, even essay tests, I get a clearer sense of what students are actually learning, what concepts they can actually discuss intelligently.

In both my writing and lit classes, I’ve been pleased with my students’ ability to memorize and regurgitate information. Since tests (even essay tests) are less abstract than essays, students better prepare themselves for the day or reckoning, whereas with papers, they seem to prime themselves with about as much urgency as an overworked server getting the final refill on the final table of a 14 hour double shift.

Bringing the focus back to me, students generally miss the same answers on tests and generally make the same mistakes on papers as their classmates, which can highlight my errors just as much as theirs. And because of that possibility of our own failure, don’t we all grade on a curve, even if we don’t tell them?

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