The dreaded question: “Will this be on the test?”

“Will this be on the test?”

I doubt there’s a teacher alive who hasn’t heard this one.  I doubt there’s a student alive who hasn’t asked it themselves or been very interested in the answer.

Teachers really don’t know how to answer this question.  If you want to see some of the more creative answers I’ve seen, you can always look at this post at math with bad drawings.  In fact, you should read it no matter what, because it’s great.  It also made me ask a question.

Why don’t teachers like this question?

Because they really, really don’t like it.  I mean, it drives teacher’s bonkers to have to answer this question.  The answers in the post I linked to (written by an actual teacher) should make that clear.  If you really don’t believe it, just ask a few teachers.  You’ll see.

Before we continue, let’s get one thing out of the way:  It’s obvious why students ask the question.  It makes sense to us.  After all, if it’s not on the test, that means that forgetting it won’t get us in any trouble.  And studying is hard and takes time which we could spend doing things which we care about more.  It’s just figuring out how to best use our time, under the assumption that our goal is to pass tests.

So why don’t teacher’s like it?  I suspect that there is no one single reason, but easily the biggest one is that most teachers don’t want to teach their students how to pass tests.  Oh, they want the students to be able to pass tests—they are trying to teach them after all.  But the thing that teachers really dream about is that their students will someday, as adults, be using what they learned to make the world a better place.  They want the students to be expanding our knowledge of the universe, curing cancer, solving social problems, or protecting the innocent.

Being able to take a test has very little to do with most of these.  The real question isn’t whether they can take a test; it’s whether they’ve learned.  Teacher’s try, and how do they try, to make tests which measure how much a student has learned.  When all is said and done, though, the world’s best tests really don’t reach that goal.  There is practically no problem in the real world which is solved by sitting in a room answering questions that somebody else already knows how to do.  And it’s even rarer to have a time limit defined in hours rather than days.  Or weeks.

And this is the heart of the problem.  The students are trying to solve one problem—what do I need to do in order to get out of this class with good grades?  What do I need to do in order for my parents to not get mad at me?  How to I get this requirement taken care of so that I can go work on things I actually care about?

And no wonder teachers can’t get behind that.  They love what they do, and they love the knowledge they are trying to give, hopefully to help a student for a lifetime.  A student asking this question means that they aren’t looking past the end of the semester, and probably will neglect and forget all that information the teacher just taught them. To the teacher, this means that the teacher just wasted their time teaching, and the student wasted their time sitting in a classroom.  And people hate being told that all their hard work is being wasted.

I don’t know what the right answer to this problem is.  After all, it’s important for both students and teachers to know how well both are actually doing, so we need to test somehow.  This all leads in to the eternal debate about the right way to test, which is waaaaay bigger than this post.

My first thought is, can we teach the students to look at the problem this way?  I’m not sure how.  After all, “looking at problems this way” probably isn’t going to be on the test…


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