No Child Left Ahead by Jerry Moore

Last week I gave a midterm in an upper division anthropology class, and two-thirds of my students failed. I learned two lessons.

The first lesson is that if I am teaching on M-W, then I should give the exam on Wednesday. If I am teaching on T-Th, then I should give the exam on Thursday. That way, I have ample time to grade the tests so I can spend the weekend fuming about the results:

How could my students do so poorly in a class on South American archaeology, the most interesting subject in the world, a topic I have dedicated my adult life to mastering???? Don’t they realize how personally disrespected I feel by their poor performance??? How could they do this to me????

I usually get over it sometime on Saturday afternoon.

After such self-indulgence, I try to discover what happened. I examine my students’ performance, using scores from different sections of the exam to learn what I can about my expectations vs. students’ performance.

And here’s the second thing I learned—most of my students did not know how to study for the midterm.

The exam is a basic format I have used many times. It consists of a) definitions of terms, b) identifications of archaeological sites, and c) in class essay questions. Students receive a study guide on the third day of class, more than 8 weeks before the exam. The study guide lists terms, archaeological sites, and ten alternative essay questions. For the exam, I chose a) five terms, b) ten archaeological sites, and c) two of the essay questions. I first used this this format in 1986 at UC Santa Barbara, and since then at Kansas State University, UCLA, and—with minor modifications—at CSUDH since 1991. Here are some comparative data from recent CSUDH classes:

2008 (n=15) 2012 (n=25) 2014 (n=29)
% % %
As 13 12 10
Bs 40 4 7
Cs 7 32 17
Ds 7 16 21
Fs 30 32 45


These scores are even worse when you realize that CSUDH anthropology majors—and these were overwhelmingly anthropology majors—need a C or better to pass. These are the pass/fail percentages:

2008                       2012                       2014

Pass          60                        50                         34

Fail            37                        50                         66

The recent results are terrible: two-thirds of my students failed the mid-term, not even counting the several students who just didn’t show up to take the exam.

But as I went into the numbers a bit more, another pattern emerged.
Part I: Concept definitions: Total Points = 10, mean = 5.75
Part II: Site Identifications: Total Points = 20; mean = 9.3
Essay 1: Total Points = 10; mean = 6.4
Essay 2: Total Points = 10; mean = 8.75

These results suggest a couple of problems. First, I don’t think my students understood the connection between a) studying for the essay questions and b) studying the definitions and site identifications. If my students were prepared to write an in-class essay on all of the ten prompts on the study guide, they would also know all the concepts and be familiar with about 3/4s of the sites. They would have received grades of Bs or above.

Second, many of my students don’t realize that when I lecture I am summarizing the general points of the essay answers. This semester I noticed that a number of students were not taking notes during my lectures. I asked one student why she wasn’t taking notes. She replied, “I only write down the information that is on a Power Point slide.” So when I was discussing a map of an archaeological site or discussing an ancient mural or pottery vessel—all of which contained information that I was discussing—she did not know that she should take notes.

It is difficult to know what has happened, but a likely culprit is the testing culture of No Child Left Behind. Here is a comment by Bill Higbee from Gage Middle School in Huntington Park: “I used to assess my students learning by having them write essays on topics in U.S. History. They used to write research papers on historical topics addressing California state history standards. Writing is of great value to our students. But since NCLB puts so much emphasis on multiple choice test scores, we no longer have our students write essays and research projects. Now we spend much of our time practicing multiple choice, bubble-in-the-space tests. NCLB has made test-taking skills much more important than written communication.”[1]

I am no expert, but based on English language arts practice tests for the California High

School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) (at, I suspect that many of my students had no idea that I was outlining the answers to various essay questions. Further, I doubt that many of them connected studying for the essays and studying for the other portions of the midterm.

I would appreciate hearing any ideas from you. I need to devise a way to teach them to make that connection. I am not sure how to do that; I could use your help.

This experience has reinforced my basic rule of thumb: Learning is learned. As CSUDH professors, we must constantly and critically examine our teaching practices—and their implicit expectations—so we can teach students so they can learn how to learn.

[1] This is found at

This blog series is entitled, Aun Aprendo: Random Notes from a CSUDH Professor.”

Professor Jerry D. Moore is an archaeologist and has taught at CSUDH since 1991.  His archaeological research centers on prehistoric cultural landscapes and the development of complex societies in Andean South America. His 2012 book, The Prehistory of Home, received the Society for American Archaeology’s 2014 Award for a book written for a popular audience.

Driven By Fear by Jerry Moore

Surrounded by thickets of pedagogy, learning theories, and political rhetoric, teaching remains a remarkably personal enterprise.  Although we want similar results from our students—intellectual engagement, mastery of knowledge, and connective thinking—we walk into our classrooms as individuals.  We enter as individuals with varying levels of expertise, varied expectations, and different motivations for what we want to accomplish in the classroom, struggling between what we hope occurs and what actually does.  In turn, our shared commitment to teaching is shaped by personal experiences and distinct aspirations.

What drives me?  I am driven by fear.  Let me tell you a story.

About twenty years ago I landed in LAX coming back from an anthropology conference.  The conference had lasted several days, so I left my car in Lot C, the long-term parking.  I came out of the airport terminal and waited for the shuttle.  It was late at night and I was tired, so I climbed on board the shuttle, said “Good evening” to the driver, shoved my suitcase in the rack, and slumped into a seat.

The shuttle pulled away from the curb.  I glanced forward and read the driver’s name plate.  I recognized the name.  He had been a student of mine at Dominguez Hills.

I remembered this young man.  He was a studio art major enrolled in my lower division GE course in archaeology.  One afternoon, I was looking at an exhibit in the gallery at LaCorte Hall, and this young man was working there, sitting in the information booth just inside the entrance.

We chatted.  He was really excited because he was interested in sculpture.  He was making the transition from sculpting by shaping clay into ceramic objects to learning how to sculpt stone.  We got into a long conversation about this new stage in his art, moving from the additive process of creating ceramic forms to the challenge of discovering the hidden forms within stone, an tactile exploration that Michelangelo described as, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

This student was really excited about this challenge, and we talked for a half hour or so.  Later that week in my archaeology class, I was discussing a similar transition that occurred during the Upper Paleolithic of Europe, when people realized that instead of making a core of stone into a single hand-axe, they could take the core and use it as raw materials for different kinds of tools—spear points, awls, knife blades, and so on—discovering the hidden possibilities latent in the stone.  I asked this young man to describe for the class his own transformation from ceramics to stone and the process of discovering hidden patterns in his art.  He shared his experiences and his excitement with the class.  It was a great “teaching moment.”

I remembered all of this that night on the shuttle bus, so I stood up and went to the front of the bus as we swerved through traffic.

“Hi there,” I said.  “I know you!  You were my student at Cal State Dominguez Hills!”

He glanced over his shoulder, nodded and let out a deep sigh.  “That was a long, long time ago.”

There was nothing more to say.  I went back to my seat.

In fact, it had only been a couple of years.  Yet, spending his nights driving the shuttle around and around LAX, it must have seemed like a long time had passed between who he was that afternoon in my class—excited by the possibilities of discovery—and where he was that night.

There is nothing wrong with honest work.  Who knows how his life has changed since that night?

We pulled into Lot C.  I grabbed my bag and said “Good bye.”  He drove away.  I have never seen him again.

But as I walked to my car, I was overcome by a dark fear that somehow I had failed that man, my student.  And I swore that I would do everything I could to never have that dark fear again.

It has been more than twenty years, but not a week passes when I don’t think about that night on the shuttle bus.  And since that night, I have done everything I could do to teach better, to motivate, mentor, and challenge my students—because I do not want to have that dark fear of failure ever again.

In my teaching, I am fundamentally driven by fear.


This blog series is entitled, Aun Aprendo: Random Notes from a CSUDH Professor.”

Professor Jerry D. Moore is an archaeologist and has taught at CSUDH since 1991.  His archaeological research centers on prehistoric cultural landscapes and the development of complex societies in Andean South America. His 2012 book, The Prehistory of Home, received the Society for American Archaeology’s 2014 Award for a book written for a popular audience.