Adapting a “Must Learn” Attitude Toward Written Tests

Teachers are always hearing that they should raise the expectations for their students and the students will rise to that increased level of expectation.  However, there is a delicate balance between raising expectations and the teacher to find the time to evaluate the additional expectations. 

 Several years ago I came upon an idea that worked beautifully.  It also didn’t require a great deal more of my time to administer. 


Here’s the problem:  I would lecture/teach material and then give a written test on the material.  After the test was graded and returned, I moved on to the next topic.  Oftentimes, students had not mastered the previous material before I moved on.  If I continued to work on the old material, the adept students became bored and became a problem.  If I moved on, the students who were behind became further behind and lost.  In a course like television production where each day progressively depends upon mastery of the material from the preceding days, this is a recipe for disaster.


I adopted a “must learn” attitude during the textbook/lecture phase of the class. In order to do this, you must grade a lot of tests, but the students do learn. Central to the “must learn” system is test grading. The tests must be graded, returned and gone over with all the students the very next school day.  Teachers can NOT delay grading tests for days. 


All students in the class must earn an 85% or higher on every test. If any students do not achieve the 85% minimum the entire class must retake the test up to three times until all students pass it. If, after three tries, any student(s) still have not passed with an 85% or higher, then the rest of the class can move on, but the stragglers are not given a “pass.”  They must continue to retake the test until they master the material.  Each time a test is re-taken, the resulting grade is recorded and included with all other test grades in the average at the end of the grading period.


Students in the class may complain about having to retake the test if they made over an 85% but remind them that every attempt is recorded so surely they’ll make a better grade the second time around.  Each of these grades is also recorded and included with all other test grades in the average at the end of the grading period. The students who score 100% on a test do not have to retake the test and receive an automatic 100% for each time the entire class retakes that particular test.  That “You don’t have to retake it and you get a free 100%” is their reward!


After three “entire class efforts,” only the students who still have not earned an 85% or higher will continue to retake the test. Students sign up for our classes to be able to play with the cool equipment.  Let using the equipment be the carrot which propels these students to learn.  Students should not be permitted to move to the equipment phase of class until they have proven their knowledge by passing every written test with the minimum 85% proficiency.


The advantages of the “must learn” philosophy are: 

(1) Good grades get better. 

(2) Bad grades get better

(3) Learning is assured

(4) Once production begins all students will know that everyone else has mastered at least 85% of the material covered. 

(5) Students begin to realize that “just getting by” with mediocre knowledge is not accepted in the real world in this industry.


Fridays typically worked well as test days. Students would take the quiz on material covered during the week and retake any previous tests, as necessary. During the week, lunch period, study hall, or time after school may also be used to retake quizzes.  By requiring re-takes to take place on “their” time you create a great motivator to students to pass the test the first time it is given. 


This system is full of complaints from students for the first couple of tests because many of them have never actually been forced to learn something by a school, but “must learn” quickly becomes understood by all the students as an immoveable rule:  “You can’t use the gear until you prove you know the material.”  It is a very black and white rule with no room anywhere in it for gray wishy-washy-ness.  I always put up a large poster on the wall with a lot of squares in a grid.  Each row had a student’s “number” on the left edge and across the top of the columns were the numbers of each test.  (this looked like a blow-up of my gradebook).  As I gave back graded tests, I called out the name of everyone who earned a 100%.  By calling out the names of the high achievers, the high achievers received public reinforcement and the rest of the class began to notice which students in the class they’d like to work with on programs in the future because they “knew their stuff,” and lastly, students began to seriously desire that public recognition and worked harder to pass the tests the first time out.


Later, I would take my magic marker and fill in the block for each student who passed a test.  After a few tests the poster began to take on the look of the “thermometer” many charities have which indicated how much money they earned.  This way it was anonymous but everyone in the class knew their individual number and could quickly see how their learning was stacking up against the rest of the class.  The competition was an excellent motivator.  I would give a reward to students who were the first ones to complete the thermometer. 


The only down side of this system is I had to grade a lot more tests.  However, the written test portion of the class happened only early on in the school term when the chaos of being in full-scale production wasn’t happening as much so I had more time to do this grading.  An excellent effect of the system is my student really did know material much better when they began the production so the level of problems during production, breakage, having to do things over, etc. was reduced significantly. 


Next month, “Getting Through the Administrative Nightmare of Qualifying Each Student on Each Piece of Equipment!