Practice, Practice, Practice

Someone drawing the human figure with a pencil

Graduate Teaching Blog Post

Contributed by Ben Suitt

(2 minute read)

Q: My students did poorly on the essay questions of the midterm despite acing my multiple choice quizzes. How do I help them do as well on the final essay exam as they did on my quizzes?

A: Seeing a disconnect between class performance in your sections versus the first major test of the semester can be disheartening for even the most seasoned instructors. Surely, if they’re acing the pop quizzes…and showing they have the key concepts down in class, they should be doing great on the professor’s test, right? Well, it may be more complicated than that. It sounds like the professor’s tests rely on an essay format, but you verify your students’ retention through quizzes relying on multiple-choice questions. This mismatch may not seem like a big deal on paper, especially with limited time in a discussion section, but there is reason to pause and consider the importance of making your quizzes more like the professor’s tests. You should check out Chapter 5 in James Lang’s Small Teaching where he emphasizes the importance of practice, low-stakes, and feedback.

         You see, scholarship shows that the best way to develop your mental faculties around certain tasks – like writing an essay on a test – is to repeat that task again and again. You know, to practice. Imagine you’re learning to draw a hand – admittedly a pretty complicated task. How would you draw it? Well, maybe you would start with lines sticking out of a circle the first time. You probably struggled a little bit to think through the process of drawing a hand. But then, on your second attempt, you feel a bit more confident. By the fifth attempt, maybe you’ve gotten pretty good at drawing a hand the way you draw it. Your students need that same sort of practice to become confident in writing an essay. The important thing to remember is that to write a good essay, they need to practice writing essays. Multiple choice – while a valuable assessment tool – does not help them with the skill they need to succeed.

         Try giving your students as many opportunities to practice the sorts of skills they will need to use on the high-stakes exam in a low(er)-stakes setting and with feedback. In your example, it may be essay writing, but this is true of any subject. Prepping for a Calculus exam on finding the limit of a function means students need to practice finding limits of a function to succeed. Identifying the artist and title of a mid-nineteenth century painting on an Art History exam means students must practice identifying artists and their respective works. In your case, give students essays to do in your section, possibly with time limits to model the final, and then be sure to look over those essays to ensure they’re doing the work the way you’d expect them to on a test. They’ll be old hats at essay-focused tests when the next one comes around.

Further Reading:

Lang, James M. “Chapter 5: Practicing.” Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. Jossey-Bass, 2016, pp. 113-136.

Langer, Ellen J. “Chapter 1: When Practice Makes Imperfect.” The Power of Mindful LearningDa Capo Lifelong Books, 2016, pp. 20-42. Kindle Edition. 

Willingham, Daniel T. Why Don’t Students Like School?: a Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. Jossey-Bass, 2010. 

Also, see the “Assessment and Grading” folder on the GRS Teaching Resources page on Blackboard.