No event demonstrates your success as a teacher more than does your first major examination or assignment. If you have taught for any length of time, you know that the first exam or major assignment is often the most critical milepost in students’ deciding to remain in a course through its conclusion. Therefore, it is imperative that such assessment tools are well designed, fair, and deemed relevant by the students. In addition, it is critical to view this critical milepost in a context that recognizes both students’ responsibility and professors’ accountability.
The first exam or assignment should NOT be made artificially easy – in fact, it should reinforce high standards. However professors should provide students with clear expectations of the exercise so that their study time is focused and that the scores reward those who are most effectively prepared.
First, as you teach, clue students in to important concepts and ideas that you intend to include on the examination. Provide an ample review – both in writing and orally, and perhaps a short sample exercise that includes very similar to those that will appear on the exam. Also tell them what format(s) the examination will use – multiple-choice, short-answer, essay, or some combination of these formats – and how much time they will have to complete the examination. If you intend to use essay questions, you should provide sample questions and a rubric for how you will evaluate the answers. Remember, examinations should not serve the purpose of catching the ill-prepared student but should instead help you and your students evaluate their understanding of the content they have been studying.
The first true psychological milepost for retention is the students’ perceptions of their first exam or assignment results. Some students will inherently know how they did, while others will need to see the scored document. Typically some will under-perform and be the most likely to drop the course. Anticipating this result, strategic professors must decide what if any action they will take to deal with the situation. “Curving” the test results – in which students are awarded unearned points so that the total class results more closely approximate a bell curve – is in most faculty members’ minds indefensible in an age of accountability.
An analysis of the test results – perhaps facilitated by a Scantron system or other technological tactic – that identifies the test items that were most frequently missed and are evaluated a second time for their clarity, validity and other salient features is one possibility. In that case, questions that only a few students – especially weaker ones – answered correctly, might signal the desire to omit the poor questions and recalculate the scores. Another possibility that some professors have used is to offer the students the opportunity to drop their score on their first exam. The reason behind this is that some students add the course late, are delayed in purchasing the text, or have somewhat valid reasons for not being as prepared as they might be. Since most faculty members’ course syllabi list numerous test and assignments, it is possible to set it up where other assignments end up being weighted more heavily should a student decide to drop the first exam score. Often, given this option some students remain in a course who would have otherwise dropped the class.
If your scored assignment is a major paper or project, you should break the assignment into several chunks and provide feedback to your students on each of them. For a major paper, you might have students develop a theme statement and an outline of the argument to submit for review and scoring. The second chunk might focus on the resources they intend to use to build their argument, and the final piece may be the completed paper. Every major written assignment or project should be coupled with a rubric that is shared with the student at the time the assignment is made. By giving students the scoring criteria up front, you indicate what is important to you; students can then expend their time and energy in positive ways to complete the assignment. If students perceive that you are fair in the assignments and feedback you give, they will be more likely to persist in your course.
Strategic professors do everything they can to challenge students and to retain students in their learning environment. If you know that you are a great teacher and that you have so much that students can learn from you, then you will want to make sure that they stay with you (and the course) long enough to do so.
Strategic professors know that staying on top of all aspects of their course planning, preparation, and implementation is critical to success and peace of mind. Pay attention to the ideas in this article and others available from Meggin McIntosh. In addition, you can learn much more about teaching and reaching the many different types of students who are in today’s college classroom by reading the book *Teaching College in an Age of Accountability* (Allyn & Bacon). The book was written by Richard Lyons & Meggin McIntosh (the author of this article).