Friday, January 14, 2011

Pretest Thoughts

On the first day of each class I teach, I assign a pretest, to gauge the basic skills the students come in with.  The pretest gives me valuable information about the thoughts and capabilities of my students.  For example, one of the writing questions this year was "Explain accurately, in terms that a young child could understand, the concept of 'One Billion Dollars'."  Very few people could do this well.  I'll have to spend a few minutes making sure they actually comprehend it.  I would answer that question like this:

"When your parents go away to work, they are spending a day earning money.  An adult will earn about a hundred dollars by working one day, so $100 is a day's work.  To earn a thousand dollars, you have to work for ten days.  Working three years gives you a hundred thousand dollars.  Working for 30 years gives you a million dollars.  So a million dollars is almost an entire lifetime of work.  If you had a million dollars, you would never have to work or go to school.  You could spend your entire life relaxing and having fun."

"A billion dollars is much more than that.  Ten million dollars is the lifetime earnings of ten people.  A hundred million is the lifetime earnings of a hundred people.  You probably do not even know a hundred people.  To get a billion dollars, you would need to have a thousand people work for their entire lives.  If you had a billion dollars, then you could make sure than everyone you ever met would never have to work again.  You could give them all a house and cars and an entire lifetime of food and clothes and toys."

The pretest also gives the students valuable information about the class.  During the first week of classes, they can drop one class and add another.  If they get a low grade on the pretest, it tells them that my class will be very hard for them, and since this is an elective, they can sign up for something else instead.

It may seem harsh, but by encouraging the slower or ill-prepared students to drop early, I end up with a much better class.  I don't have to slow down for them, and the better students do not get bored.  The people who drop also benefit, because they do not get stuck in a class they cannot handle.

The pretest always has sections for algebra, geometry, and writing.  This semester's group of students did much better on the math portions than last semester's group.  Maybe it is from having their skills honed by more time in college.  Most people in my class are freshmen.  Instead of coming from a summer break and a slack senior year of high school, they are coming from a semester other classes that require these skills.

But I did make one change in the test that may have changed a lot.  In previous tests, the geometry section was a paragraph of facts and then four questions.  In this one, I gave the facts inside each question, breaking up the exposition and guiding them through the process.  I think this made a big difference.  Students often have the skills to do lots of different tasks, but they do not have the skills to break a big task down into smaller tasks.

This year I added questions about my syllabus.  When I emailed it out, I warned them that they would be tested on it, to give them an incentive to read the thing.  I was sick of people asking questions like 'Where is your office?' that are on the first page of the syllabus.  This should end that; almost everyone aced the questions.  Even if they forget the fact, they will remember that they once knew it and where they can find it.

I repeatedly find that simply telling people things does not work well.  If I had gone over the syllabus in class, the bad students would have ignored me and the good students, who already read it, would feel bored and insulted.  This way everyone reads it and I do not waste any class time.  My entire class is structured under the assumption that students can read things on their own.  I expect them to take care of their selves, and then they usually do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ahhh; those last two sentences make me long for the days that I, as a HS teacher; assumed that to be true of my students. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. Dad