I am about to hand their first test of the year back to them. I want to convince them that there is another way to think about the results of this test.
“As always, some people did better on this test than others. The question I want you to think about when you get back your test is what are you going to do with it? Let’s say you find that you did much worse than you thought you had - it happens some times. Under normal circumstances, what would you do with that?”
Layla, who in fact did pretty well on this test, says, “I would probably take a quick look at it and stick it in my pack. I might show it to Annie and do a little private groaning, but then I definitely wouldn’t want other people to see it.”
“And what about later - say when you get home. Would you look at it again? Or share it with anyone else?”
“I probably would look at it, just to see what I got wrong and if it seemed fair. As for sharing, I might email a friend or two and moan about it.”
“Anyone else have any thoughts on what you would do?”
“Mine would go straight in my pack. I wouldn’t even look at it.” This is Suzanne.
“Probably into the pile at the bottom of my locker.” There is some laughter. Apparently, Suzanne is known among her friends as having a locker that is seriously out of control.
“Okay. Here’s the thing. What you do with a test when you get it back is actually important. If you did badly, you might feel ashamed, or sad, or angry at yourself or me or school in general. Even though these are pretty normal responses, none of these emotions are useful. In fact, they are really counterproductive.
“When you crumple up this test and throw it in the bottom of your locker, you are ensuring that you cannot possibly learn anything more about this topic. The process is done. You are shutting it down and moving on to the next topic.
“But this test is telling every one of you something really important. It is shining a light on the boundary between what you do know and what you don’t. And that boundary is exactly where all learning takes place.
“Take a look at today’s quote: I point to the the white board, which reads: “Failure is an opportunity.” Lao Tzu“Anybody have any thoughts about what that means?”
“If you mess up, you can recover,” Jess says.
“You need to look on the bright side of things,” Cassandra adds.
“Don’t be afraid of making mistakes,” Carl says.
“Do you remember the story of the Boy Scouts and their merit badges? It’s time to start thinking of tests that way. If we’re thinking about tests that way, what should you really do to make tests useful? How could you use them to learn from your mistakes?”
“Look at the problems we got wrong, right?” Suzanne asks.
“Yes. But I’d like you to start thinking of those problems in a new way: it’s not so much that you got them wrong, it’s that you don’t know how to do them correctly yet. That leaves you open to doing more work, figuring it out, and showing me that you have learned from your mistakes.
“Consider for a moment the idea that everyone in this room is fully capable of understanding all the content of this class. I can tell you honestly that I believe that. And if that’s true, the reason why not everyone aced this test is because some of you haven’t finished the process of learning it yet. It’s really that simple.
“We know everyone learns in a different way and at a different pace. If we are truly dedicated as a class to the goal of everyone learning physics successfully, why would we punish thos of us who are taking longer to master the material? We wouldn’t. Only you, every one of you, should have the power to decide you have learned as much as you are going to. That’s why the process I’m about to show you is voluntary. It is your choice.
“So, let’s take a look at how you can learn from your mistakes. Over the years, I’ve developed a process called a test resubmittal,” I hold up a sheet of paper, “and here’s how it works. If you got a question wrong, you need to figure out why you got it wrong - exactly what were you thinking? Obviously, you also need to know not only what the correct answer is, but why it’s the correct answer.
“Your task is to look carefully at every question you got wrong on the test and show clearly and convincingly that you now understand it. Doing this work will improve your grade, especially if you did badly. More importantly, this process gives you a way to complete your understanding of the material before you move on to the next topic.
“But you can’t do this process very well by yourself, and you can’t all depend on me to explain and help you learn the material - there’s not enough of me to go around. It is much, much better to work with other people and talk to them about how they did the work, ask them about how they got it right. This is a principle function of the study groups, and it is where a large part of your learning will take place.
“And that means you are going to have to overcome your shame or anger or sadness, and find enough courage to put your test on the table where others can see it. You need to be able to say, “I need help with these three problems - how did you do them.” That is going to require a lot of trust. It will get much easier once we’ve chosen permanent study groups and you’ve gotten to know the people in your study group members much better. In the meantime, just while you are going over this test, I’ll let you form your own groups so that you can work with people you already know. Let’s say a maximum of five in each group, and I’ll work out the details with anyone who for any reason doesn’t find a group to be in right away.
“Usually, there is at least one person in each group that got the problem that you messed up. If no one in your group got it, call me over and I’ll work with you.”
I hand out the tests, give them a minute to look at them, and say, “Okay, once you’ve made up your groups, introduce yourselves if there’s anyone in the group that you don’t know. Then go over every question that anyone in your group missed. If you got any of them wrong, I want you to get out your journal, title a new entry “Test Corrections”, and put the correct solution in there. It’s okay to copy it over from someone who got it right, as long as you can see how it’s done at a later time. If you are going to do a retest later on, this is a required step in the process. I’ll go over the other steps later. Remember, if you take this process seriously, you will not only improve your grade, but more importantly, you will learn more.”