I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. After 10 years of teaching, I finally realize why students get so nervous about exams. It’s because taking an exam is a performance.
It’s just like the now-notorious American Idol show, when they are doing the first round of auditions. You can have great natural ability and sound terrific, but when the spotlight shines down as you stand in front of the judges and the TV cameras, can you make it happen? That determines who’s invited to continue. It doesn’t matter how you sound in the shower. It doesn’t matter how well you do when performing for family or friends. It’s how you sound when it’s showtime.
The same can be said about an exam. Students may be able to do any calculation or answer any question in your office, in the hallway, in their dorm rooms, or at the kitchen table. But how do they perform in class with the test paper in front of them? That’s what determines their grades on the test and often in the course.
So how can we, as professors, help students do well when it’s time to perform? I have developed several strategies. The first is easy: practice, practice, practice. I work an example on the board. Then I give students a similar problem that they work individually. After they’ve finished, we go over the answer. Next, I have them solve problems in small groups, discussing various approaches and the solution. I offer help only when needed. Outside of class, they use an online homework program that allows multiple attempts for each problem. By the time they see a problem on an exam, they have had several opportunities to successfully solve that type of problem.
Second, I help them learn to perform by lowering the stakes. Unlike American Idol, I don’t let exams be a make-or-break event in the course. Exams count for 30 percent of the final grade (the final exam counts as an additional 20 percent). The students have many other opportunities to demonstrate that they have learned the material, such as the online homework, group quizzes, and the laboratory portion of the course. When we go over the exam after it has been graded, I give the students the opportunity to correct 5 or 10 items for one point each.
In my junior-level physical chemistry course, I allow students to bring to exams a note card with relevant equations and constants. Designing the card before the exam is a learning experience in and of itself. I also allow them to drop one regular exam so that a single bad performance doesn’t ruin the whole semester.
My bottom line: Give students several opportunities to shine, on exams and other assignments, and make sure they are prepared for test day so that they can overcome any test anxiety. That way, they won’t end up in the “bottom three” or, worse yet, be eliminated. A teacher should want the performance to justify moving all students to the next round!
Dr. Todd M. Hamilton is an associate professor of chemistry at Georgetown College, Georgetown, KY
Excerpted from Exams and American Idol, The Teaching Professor, Dec. 2005.