Can we Teach Students to Understand Math Tests?

A few weeks ago, I gave a test where the grades were less than stellar. Whenever this happens, I try to sit down and reflect on whether the poor test grades were a result of something I did differently in class, a poorly written test, or a result of poor studying habits. After careful reflection and analysis of my own, I was pretty sure that this was the result of lack of studying (a theory which was verified … later in this blog post).

I was dreading the task of passing back these tests and prepared myself for an onslaught of questions aimed at trying to discredit the test (or the teaching).  Then I got one of those great last-minute ideas that come to you right before you walk in to face the students.  Maybe I should let them “pick apart” the test BEFORE they see their own tests.  The class in question is Math for Elementary Teachers (MathET) and I figured that a detailed test analysis would not be an inappropriate topic for us to spend class time on.

First, I made some blank copies of the test (enough for each group to have one).  I also created a handout with every single learning objective and assignment that I had given the students for each of the sections on the test (these are all available in their Blackboard shell, but  I compiled these in a paper-based handout that was 3 pages single-spaced). Here is what one section looked like:

5.1 Integers
• Describe operations on signed numbers using number line models.
• Demonstrate operations on signed numbers using colored counter models.
• Explain why a negative times a negative is a positive.
• Add, subtract, multiply, and divide signed numbers (integers).
• Know the mathematical properties of integers (closure, identity, inverse, etc.)
• Complete #1, 3, 7, 9, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25, 37
• Be able to model addition, subtraction, and multiplication of signed numbers using a number-line model
• Be able to model addition, multiplication, and division of signed numbers using a colored counter model (why not subtraction? because subtraction is really the addition of a negative – treat it so)
• Read the blog posts about why a negative times a negative is a positive and be able to paraphrase at least two arguments in your own words.
• Study for your Gateway on Signed Numbers (be able to add, subtract, multiply, or divide signed numbers)
• Play with Manipulative: NLVM Color Chips Addition
• Play with Manipulative: NLVM Circle Game

When we met in class, I counted the class into groups of 3 students each. Each group received a copy of the learning objectives & assignments (by section) and a blank copy of the test. All of these were un-stapled so that the group could share and divide up the pages as they wanted.

Task #1: Look at all the objectives and assigned tasks/problems. Determine where these objectives, tasks, and problems showed up on the exam. (20-30 min)

Objective: Make the connection between what I tell them they need to learn/do and what shows up on the test.

Task #2: What didn’t show up on the exam? We discussed why these objectives might have been left off (for example, maybe it was not something that I emphasized in class) (5 min)

Objective: Make the connection between what is likely to show up on an exam and what is not likely to show up (with the caveat that any of the learning objectives are really fair game).

Task #3: Make a chart that shows how the points for each test question were distributed between the sections that were covered on the exam. We then compared the results from each group and compared these results to my analysis of the point-distribution for the test. (5-10 min)

Objective: Clearly see that it is necessary to study ALL sections, not just a couple of them.

Task #4: I passed back the individual tests. Each student was given three questions to answer as they looked through their tests. 1. Where were the gaps in your knowledge? 2. What mistakes should you have caught before turning in your test? (read directions more carefully, do all the problems, etc.) 3. What can you do to better prepare for the NEXT test?  I collected these, made copies, and passed them back to the students the next class. (10 minutes)

Objective: Take responsibility for your own studying.

It was here that students surprised me by being honest on Question #3. Most of them confessed that they had not studied at all, but now realized that they needed to start studying. I cannot help but wonder whether I would have gotten the same result if I had simply passed back the tests with no analysis.

Task #5: At the same time the students were looking over their own exam, I passed around one more blank copy of the test and asked students to write their score  for each problem (no names) on that problem so that we could see what the score distributions looked like.  When this was done, I placed the pages on the document camera one-by-one so that they could see the scores problem by problem.

Objective: To show the students that for many questions, students either get the question almost completely right, or completely wrong (you know it or you don’t).

Task #6: We had already covered the first section of the next unit, so I had the students begin a set of “How to start the problem” flashcards. On the front of the flash card, they wrote a “test question” for the new unit. On the back of the card, they wrote some tips for starting the problem and details they might otherwise forget.

Objective: To begin to see tests from the perspective of a test-writer instead of a test-taker.

Take-home assignment: I told each student that they must come to the next test with at least 5 flash cards per section (35+ flash cards). I suggested that a great way to study would be to swap cards with each other and practice with someone else’s questions. I checked to see if they carried through (although I assigned no consequences if they didn’t). All but two carried through. Anyone want to guess how those two fared?

Results: I just finished grading the latest test (signed numbers, fractions, and decimals – not easy topics), and the test results were almost all A’s and B’s (instead of C’s and D’s on the previous test). Most students left the test with a smile on their face, and several finally got the “A” they had been trying for all semester.

Three questions for you, my busy and wise readers:
1. Will the students persist in better study habits now? For example, will they study like this for the next exam?
2. Would this detailed test analysis have had the same effect if the class hadn’t just crashed & burned on a test?  (i.e. is it necessary to “fail” first)
3. Was this a good use of class time? Would it be good use of class time in a different math course, like Calculus?

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Comments

  1. Dean says:

    Hi, I am a high school math teacher and I share the same frustrations (too often) when I return the kids exams. I am not sure how much of the results can be explained by (a) not wanting to study very hard or (b) not knowing how to study. I think it is a combination of the two, and while some of the activities you posted may help with (b), I am not sure what we can do about (a).

  2. Vali says:

    First off, loved the post. Next, let me address your questions…

    1. Will the students persist in better study habits for the next exam?

    Probably not unless this becomes, in some sense, a routine. If they’re given the opportunity to collectively, publicly analyze the objectives and evaluate their preparation >beforetheyshould< want to do for the benefit of their own learning), we’re always going to fight a losing battle. That is, we’re always going to be attempting to “fix” our students’ deficiencies — as if they are so much faulty lab equipment that we can cite as the reason for our feelings of failure. I would suggest that some difficulty might spring from the assumptions you could be carrying with you into your teaching.

    For example: “all students are capable of achieving the same level of success with the course content in the same amount of time.” This is an offshoot of the “students are interchangeable widgets” axiom that so plagues educational research, but really started with the industrial school model. But I digress…

    Suffice it to say, instead of looking for the silver bullet with which to solve the perennial problem of motivation, you might want to consider the assumptions that underlie your perceptions of things like “motivation.” Not to say you’ll find a ‘cure’ in any sense, but you might allow more room for thoughts and actions (like the one described in the original post) to guide you to better, different engagement.

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