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)|
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.”
I am no expert, but based on English language arts practice tests for the California High
School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) (at http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/hs/documents/studyela08prac.pdf), 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.
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.