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by Roie Black

As a teacher, my job is to try to stuff knowledge and skills into the minds of my students, to prepare them for that life they hope to live. It seems to get tougher to do this every class I teach. I am always on the lookout for new ideas that might help get this knowledge into their heads!

The Teaching Process

In most of my classes, there are a ton of basic “facts” to introduce, many new terms, and ideas about how to approach the topic we are covering. I create an extensive set of lecture notes that cover these items, and use examples from my experiences to make them more relevant (I hope).

I also have a textbook for each class, sometimes chosen by me, but more often chosen by a committee of instructors who teach the same course.

I make sure my lectures do not just repeat what is in the book. I also do not stand in front of a class reading the book or my notes to the students. Instead I tell stories about the material. Students can (and should) read the other materials on their own. My theory is that by showing them the same material in another context, they have a better chance of “getting it”.

I am becoming more convinced that today’s students really do not spend much time reading any of these resources. They seem to think everything needed for the course will be discussed in class. That might work if they actually come to class, and get off of their phones while there. (Maybe I am just being a bit cynical there!)

Test Time

The ultimate test of how well they are absorbing the material comes in tests I give, several times during a class. Over the years, I have evolved a scheme I think better helps get the material into their heads.

First, I NEVER give multiple-choice tests. In a college setting, I find these a waste of energy. I tell the students this simple fact:

You will never go into a job interview and be asked multiple-choice questions. You will be asked to demonstrate what you know!

So, I expect them to tell me something about the concepts we have been covering and demonstrate some level of mastery of the material.


Before each test, I post a set of example questions covering the topics that will be tested. We go over that in class several days before the test. Those questions never appear on the test, but they are close to what they will see. If they can answer the example questions, they should do well on the actual test.

Sadly, that often does not happen, especially in a difficult course. Whether they do not take the review seriously, or just do not read the material, I never really know. In any case, I am left with a quandary:

Do I just let them do poorly on the test, or do I give them a second chance to learn something?

The Santa Factor

The idea I came up with goes like this.

The first time they see the test, it is a closed-book exam and they give it their best shot.

I grade this attempt to see how the class is doing overall. I have a philosophy that says if the entire class misses a particular question, it says something about that topic. Either I did not cover it well for this group of students, the text was not clear enough, and my notes did not fill in the void. In an extreme case, I might pitch that question, but I seldom do that. I just record the results for later review.

Here is where Santa comes in.

At the next class meeting, I hand back the tests. However, there are no marks on those tests. I write my grading notes elsewhere for use later. The tests are exactly as they were when the student turned them in. I give them no clue whether they got a question right or wrong.

Instead, they have one more shot at answering the questions, this time open-book. My theory is that this will cause them to look up the material and figure out what they did wrong on their own. I offer half of the points they missed on each question if they get things right this second time. I also tell them that they cannot get less points than my first grading produced. If they really mess up on the rewrite, I ignore that effort.

I also ask them to provide references where they found the correct answer, either in the text, or my lecture materials. This way I can see that they revisited the material one more time.

This is all Santa’s fault! If he did not always show up when I grade tests, I never would have thought up this scheme!

Does this work?

So far, I have never had anyone object to this scheme, although they are surprised when they get back an unmarked test. (I have had students try to get me to tell them if an answer is right or wrong on the test before they turn it in the first time – go figure!)

I believe many do get a better grasp of the material by doing this. Overall, I am happy with the results. (So is Santa!)

More Work to Do

Surprisingly, some students still do poorly, even when the answers are right in front of them. In those cases, there is a fundamental problem to address. They are just not getting the material. Perhaps this is not the right area of study for them, or perhaps I need to explore other teaching tactics. I ponder this a lot!

I am discovering that students often do not read the questions fully, even during the second pass, and miss questions as a result. I spend a fair amount of time working on this problem, since this will be a real issue for their working lives, when bosses give them assignments!

I am sure I am getting better results in my classes than those instructors who give those multiple-choice tests. Sure, those are easy to grade (they can even be graded automatically, relieving the instructor from doing much work at all). Ultimately, multiple-choice does not really test mastery of a topic. The student needs to be able to create the answer from their own thinking, not from hints found in the choices offered with the question!

Why do this?

My real goal is to help the student learn something that will prove useful to them in life. My goal has never been to weed out students who fail a test. That hardly seems a fair way to teach, and yet it does happen. Second chances are not always available in life, but in school, you should not be counted out if you blow one test.

Originally Posted: www.co-pylit.org/blog

Re-posted with author’s permission.