The Most Important Question: Do You Believe in Me?

Broken pencil on a pad with the word help

Test-taking SOS

This is a good question to start off this year’s Recess Road Trips. It’s the most important question our students ask us, and often their only answer  comes when we assess their work.

What makes students believe in themselves as learners?   Of course we  believe in our students, but you can’t blame them for wondering about that sometimes.  This little story shows what I’m talking about.  Granted, it happened back in the ice age when I started teaching, but some things haven’t changed as much as we may think (or hope) they have.

If you’ve read some of my other posts, you’ll know that my early days of teaching were challenging.  My students were challenged as learners, and in turn they challenged me as a teacher.  So I’m putting it out there; I wasn’t always the perfect teacher, but at least that way I always had something to strive for.

After all their years of failure, convincing my students they could be successful was like swimming upstream with my arms tied. It was hard not to drown in their defeat.  I  tried to think of ways to give them more confidence in themselves.  I figured we could try reviewing for an upcoming social studies test by letting the kids make up the questions and discussing the answers together to help them study.  I thought they might feel more confident going into it if we had shared and agreed on the answers to the questions they wrote.  Not exactly bleeding edge stuff today, but back then test creation was always a top secret, teacher-driven operation .

While my intentions were good, things didn’t turn out exactly the way I hoped they would.  In the end I was the one who did all the learning, because the questions my students made up told me surprising things about what they thought tests were for.  Their questions were almost impossible to answer because they focused on the tiniest details in the textbook in a random sort of way.  Here’s an example: “ When was the Battle of Hastings and what type of horse did William of Normandy ride?” Hmm. . .

OK, some of this was because my kids were not practiced at making up questions, but I have to take most of the blame here.   I never discussed what tests were for, what the key understandings of the unit were, or anything else about our purposes for learning the material.  It was all in my mind, but I never actually let my class in on the secret.  No wonder they thought tests were like running an obstacle course in the dark.

Test stress2

Test stress leading to collapse

The students told me they were trying to make their questions “tricky”, so they were asking a lot of “hard stuff”.  In other words, they assumed that one of the purposes of the test was to trip up as many people as possible on small details and ensure that they didn’t succeed.  This test creation activity  told me a lot about how these students viewed assessment – it was there to confuse and defeat them.

Though times have changed, it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say that many students still look towards  judgment of their work with fear and anxiety, not confidence.  And instead of clearly knowing what criteria will be used to assess them, making good guesses about what’s expected sometimes plays a significant role in student success.

Conversely, poor guesses can lead to failure, or results that aren’t as good as they could be.  The pictures used in this blog are aren’t from some antique collection. Test and assignment stress is alive and well today.

All this leads to thinking about how we can encourage our students to be curious and ask questions about what they’re learning, rather than just answer ours.  In other words, how can we show them that they’re capable learners who have something to contribute when it comes to their learning?

More on this next time, and welcome back.  Let the Road Trips begin.

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