One a college professor, one a high school teacher, both in the sciences, both frustrated that students were not performing up to course standards. Both educators felt students were blaming them as instructors for the poor scores and they were trying to figure out how to reach their ultimate goal; all students motivated to perform at their best in each respective course.
With each of them I began with one question, "Are your tests assessing what and how you are teaching?" Both talked through it a bit and agreed that their tests are not full of 'trick' questions and are available and taught either in their lectures, websites, textbooks and/or daily activities and labs. Regardless of the 'straight forward' assessment their students did very poor and were clamoring to drop their class while accusing the teachers of poor instruction.
I ended up giving the same suggestion for both educators, give the tests again with open notes, lectures (the college instructor has flipped lectures online), textbooks and any labs or activities completed in class. The only stipulation for the students is they not only had to answer the questions on the assessment, but beside each one they had to state WHERE they found the answer. Last, survey the students as to one thing they can do to improve their scores in the course between now and the next assessment as well as make one suggestion for the instructor to help their learning.
This is where fear and anxiety as well as denial can set in for many instructors (although these two welcomed the challenge).
"Well we know the students won't take responsibility for their learning, they're just lazy"
"I taught them everything, it's their responsibility to learn it."
"It's not a real test if they have open materials...in the REAL world you have to know this stuff!"
"I don't want to hear I did something wrong, I did MY job!"
In the case of these two science instructors they took a leap of faith and the suggestion did wonders. First the re-do of the test allowed students to reflect that they had access to all the information tested, and in fact, it had been taught and available in multiple modalities. In addition, the teachers received the powerful feedback reviewing these tests. Being transparent and allowing their test to be broken down by what way they taught the information will now allow for slight modifications in their instruction to be sure that what was being taught was covered multiple times. Both instructors also could see what types of questions were being asked as if they were available freely in notes or the textbook they were often lower order thinking or just memorization questions versus those questions that best related to activities which aligned with higher order thinking skills. Students also learned how to best prepare for future tests in these courses going through this item breakdown.
The survey, while leaving the teachers vulnerable to student attack, revealed some great feedback too. First students were very honest and many stated that they need to put more work into taking and organizing their notes as all information was readily available and taught. These educators received some kudos for allowing students to learn about themselves with quotes like, "thank you for helping me to examine how to learn best in this class..." and "...you are a great teacher and I just need to try harder and organize my learning more..." This allowance for meta-cognition will help these students well beyond this course.
Also, while it will take a couple of weeks to reveal the improvement of relationships between these instructors and their struggling students, I am willing to bet students will feel much more comfortable to discuss their needs and questions either in class or during office hours now that these lines of communication have been opened. Lastly, these instructors did internalize the few students who pinned their struggle on these teachers, allowing for personalized instruction for these student and the need for more 'review' type materials to guide these students.
While I was more than happy to help these educators find a successful path for them and their students it did make me stop and think to myself, "how often do other teachers, professors or educational leaders make themselves or their products transparent or vulnerable?" More importantly, "Why are we scared to collaborate with our students and peers in a way which allows for critique?" "Is it fear of the evaluation/review process in colleges and K12 schools?" "How can I as an educational leader support growth of students AND educators in my building and district?"
These questions will have to wait till another time I feel like being vulnerable and making my own thinking transparent.