Tips from the McMaster Community

My students are panicked about the midterm.
Gretchen Umholtz, Faculty of Humanities

Anxiety about testing can inhibit students' ability to learn. Anxiety can be somewhat allayed, and test results improved, by explicit, structured building of experience on the same pattern that testing will ultimately take. Students appreciate a chance to practice (and get feedback) before the stakes get too high.

For many students in Greek Art, a level 2 course with no prerequisite, the need to be able to recognize and discuss visual images is something completely new, and requires a very different kind of studying. For this reason I make a special effort to 'layer' early assignments in such a way as to build confidence and experience in the kinds of activities that students will ultimately be performing on their examinations. I am very explicit about how and why I am doing this, and about the way that these activities will be mirrored in the midterm and final exams.

One example of this 'layering' is the quiz that students take in the 4th week of the course. This quiz counts for 10% of their course grade, but is billed primarily as a practice and learning experience. The format is exactly the same as that of Part I of their midterm and final exams, but the (very precisely defined) body of material covered is much more limited. Students must identify each image shown and comment on its significance. Not only is the quiz itself 'practice' for the midterm and final, but we also 'practice' in class on several occasions in the week or two before the quiz: I show a slide and ask the students to take a couple of minutes to write a practice answer individually (for their own eyes only). We then go through the example orally, together as a class, generating a sample answer on the blackboard. This helps students to see how they are doing individually, and helps them to see the kinds of studying they most need to focus on.

One of the things students most appreciate is that if they do very badly on the quiz, but show dramatic improvement on Part I of the midterm, I will weight the midterm mark more heavily and the quiz less heavily in the calculation of their final course grade. This is important in this course, since the style of learning and testing is unfamiliar to so many, and a significant number of students generally do receive failing marks on the first quiz

The chance to 'redeem' their mark in a very direct way on the midterm makes an initial failure much less dispiriting and makes it easier for students to concentrate on learning from the experience. And they do improve. There are generally at least six students whose marks on the midterm are at least two full letter-grades higher than their marks on the first quiz. The class is small enough (65-75 students) that tracking and rewarding significant improvement is not difficult, but a well-designed database, or sharp-eyed T.A., could readily spot the relevant cases in much bigger classes as well.

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