Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Ten Commandments for Taking a Test

As I have written a number of times on this blog, I like to think of myself as a mentor as well as a teacher. I’m hoping that my students walk away more thoughtful and wise on top of knowing more accounting. I think if all I was doing was teaching accounting and its rules I would have retired years ago.

I gave my first test of the fall semester several weeks ago. I really did want my students to succeed. They are capable people and I’d like to see them make the best possible use of those talents. A good grade on the first test is a wonderful way to get a semester started.

So, during the class immediately preceding this test, I talked with them about my Ten Commandments for Taking a Test. Hopefully, this helped them be (a) properly prepared and (b) able to show me what they really did know.

Of course, what I want is for the test to be fair and properly challenging and for them to prove to me that they have mastered the material and understand how to make use of that knowledge. Here’s what I told them.

To my students: My Ten Commandments for Taking a Test
1 – Read the darn question. I realize you are nervous but you have to read each word and each sentence carefully in order to give me an answer that actually addresses the question that I am asking. Because you are a bit tense, you probably want to get started answering as quickly as possible. It is easy to skim the question and start guessing at what is being asked. I sometimes refer to that as “shotgun reading” where you pick a word from here and a word from there and a word for somewhere else on the page and assume you know what the question really asks. Do not do that. If necessary, put your finger on each word and force yourself to read everything in the question. It is hard to get a question correct if you do not know what the question is asking.

2 – Stay calm. We have three tests this semester and a final examination. Yes, this test is important but you’ll do better if you stay calm. A little tension probably keeps you focused but more than a little tension can make you hyperventilate. Don’t get excited. If you tense a muscle enough, you can hardly move it. To get maximum movement, you have to let it get loose. The brain works the same way. You’ve taken tests since you were in kindergarten or the first grade. You should be an expert at test taking by now. If you have done the work that I’ve asked, you have no reason to lose your calm. I want to see what you know and letting your adrenaline get too pumped up keeps you from showing me what you know.

3 – Think. The questions are not written to see what you have memorized. The questions are written to test your ability to use your understanding. So I expect you to think. I am not training parrots to repeat back to me what I have told them. I expect you to read the question and think about what it is asking and what a reasonable solution would be. If the answer is not immediately obvious (trust me, it won’t be), it is because I expect you to think about it.

4 – Hours = Points. The more time you spend studying for this test, the better. Ten hours is better than five hours. However, the equation Hours = Points is really taking in all the time you have spent since our first class. If you have spent sufficient time on a regular basis since we began this course, you’ve already put in most of the hours that you need. That is what I really want. But, you need to avoid being naïve – either as we have covered the material or as you prepare for this test, nothing replaces studying enough hours.

5 – Figure it out. We have covered a lot of material since the semester began. Every question goes back in some way to what we have covered: a rule, an example, a principle, a discussion. The questions are not random (no matter how they look at first glance). I expect you to figure out how each question ties into what we have covered and then figure out how you can use that knowledge to come up with a reasonable resolution. As you and I both know, my three favorite words are “figure it out.”

6 – Good start. The first test is only a small part of your grade – about 20 percent. However, I would love for you to get off to a great start. A good grade on this first test doesn’t ensure a life of wealth and happiness but I do think it tends to make the semester go well. I’ve probably already got your full attention but, if not, I’d urge you one last time to put in a good effort in getting ready. Students almost invariably do better if they do a good job on their first test of the semester. Everything gets easier after that.


7 – Office hours. There is a famous line from the Watergate hearings back in the 1970s. When someone asked one of the attorneys for a witness why he was raising so many objections, he responded "Well, sir, I'm not a potted plant. I'm here as the lawyer. That's my job." So, if you ask, why do I spend 6-8 hours in my office each and every week, the answer is – Well, I’m not there as a potted plant. I’m your teacher. That’s my job. In other words, make good use of me as a resource. I didn’t get into teaching because I didn’t want you to learn. I got into teaching because I genuinely like young people and enjoy seeing them come to learn and understand the material we cover. Some students make great use of my office hours. Others wouldn’t walk into my office if they were bleeding to death. That’s dumb. You (or someone else) is paying a lot of money for your education. I have a lot of office hours. Come in and ask questions. Make use of me. I am not a potted plant. It is my job.

8 – Fair. As you are reading each question, I think it is helpful to realize that I am trying to be fair. There is no reason for me to ask you a question that you cannot figure out. That doesn’t prove anything. If you have done the work that I have asked, I think you have a wonderful shot at getting every question correct. I think that is fair. If you have not done the work that I have asked or if you’ve not been able to learn the material for whatever reason, I think you have a wonderful shot at missing every question. That is the purpose of a test – to allow me to see what you have learned and understand. I will never ask you a question that I don’t think you can answer if you have attended class and done the work. I am not sadistic; I’m just trying to figure out what you know.

9 – The first test is not life or death. Obviously, it is nice if you do well on this first test. But, I don’t want you to put a huge amount of pressure on yourself. Study as much as you can, come by and see me if I can help, stay calm, think about the questions. However, after it is over, walk away and—for the time being—forget about it completely. It is just one test in one course in a long life of education. Some students put so much pressure on themselves that it is hard to keep things in perspective. If you don’t do well on this first test, then you and I can sit down and plot out a good strategy to do better on the next test.

10 – Have confidence. In life, whether you are shooting a basketball or putting a golf ball or taking a test, things go better if you believe in yourself. You are bright folks—you made it through high school, you made it through other courses at this school, you’ve been working in my class for weeks. We've worked hard; you've done well. You are more than bright enough to do well on this test. I believe in you and you should believe in yourself. You have a wonderful mind. That mind is more than capable of answering any question that I might throw at you in this course. Don’t come in expecting the worst. Come in with a belief that you’ve done the work and you have the ability to take on the challenge of this test.

Good luck – absolutely nothing will please me more than giving 100 percent A’s. You CAN do it!!!

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