I teach a course that ends with a big standardized exam at the end. The first few years I taught it, I used to do test prep by the book. I gave my students a sample exam each quarter. They had 42 minutes to complete 40 of the 55 multiple-choice questions and I counted the results as a test grade. As a class, we would review the questions the following day, sometimes in small-group breakdowns, sometimes as whole-class instruction. The two weeks before the exam we were in full-on, test-prep mode, drilling and killing. I thought I was preparing them for the rigors of the exam. I thought I was exposing them to college-level work. I thought this was a sound instructional practice.
But my scores did not budge.
The logical conclusion was that my students needed more preparation to do better, not less. So that is what I did it. I gave them review packets with question stems and vocabulary words. I printed out Sparknotes summaries of the novels that we read, but that did not help either.
Then, I started making small tweaks to my testing philosophy even though it seemed counterintuitive. my scores rose. I made a few more tweaks and they soared.
In a three-year span I increased my students’ scores by 30%.
Here are the Four Counterintuitive Ways I Improved My Test Scores
1. To Prepare Students for the Test I Forget About the Test
Instead of testing my students with quarterly practice exams, I did not show them a single question until March. Exposing them early often crushed their confidence because they did not have the skills to succeed on such a demanding exam.
Now, I build skills from September to February, putting them in a position to be successful when they see their first sample question in March. They now arrive from a position of strength rather than one of weakness.
2. I Took Away All the Stress
Each quarter ended with a big practice exam right before grades were calculated and reports cards were sent home. Talk about anxiety-inducing fear. So many of my students are grade conscious, and to have a big exam at the end of the quarter, one that tested if they were capable of doing college-level work as high-school students, created tension, fear, and disappointment.
Now I do Multiple-Choice Mondays in March. My students take 10 practice questions each Monday that don’t count for a grade. It is just practice, but practice with a purpose. I use Socrative to record the results, and I use those results as a measurement that informs my instruction. It is a win-win because they don’t have to sweat it and there are no tears, and I get the data I need to inform my instruction that week.
3. Everything Was Implied
I once thought that the best way to prepare students for the test was to directly instruct it. That is why we would review the questions, but instead of exposing my students to many of my students to new learning, many expressed that these review sessions felt like it exposed their failures.
Now, I employ implied instruction rather than direct instruction. I teach the same skills that appear on the exam, it just happens within the context of my normal teaching units, not a quarterly exam. This resulted from reviewing years of practice exams and identifying the key skills that are tested over and over again and developing ways to embed those skills within my regular instructional practice with the novels and poems that I teach.
4. I Joined In
When I gave quarterly exams or in-class essays I would always grade the period before while my current class was writing or taking the exam.
On an early podcast interview with Chris Lehman, author of Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts, he urged all teachers to write along with their students. Doing so allows a teacher to experience what a student experiences. It is an act of teaching compassion, putting yourself in your students’ shoes and riding along for the struggle to write a thesis, develop topic sentences, and incorporate supporting details.
Now, with every essay I assign and with each Multiple-Choice Monday, I am right their with them writing along and answering close reading questions. It allows me to be more empathetic as a teacher. To a certain extent, I feel what they feel. I experience the frustration of getting a question wrong when the evidence was plainly in sight. I know what it is like to have an idea that needs to be articulated but struggle to find the words to express it. I can also express my thought process to them, modeling the way I work through a question.
Which counterintuitive approaches have you used to prepare your students for exams? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.