On Finals…

Finals are stressful for all involved.  Students are studying as if their lives depend on it.  Many of them are also scrambling to turn in any remaining late work in a hopeful attempt to salvage their grade for the semester.  Teachers are either furiously grading work, writing their final exams, or they are (like I often find myself) in a bizarre holding pattern where their finals are written, but they can do nothing to get a jump on the massive pile of grading that finals inevitably bring.  The sense of comfort and relaxation we all felt during winter break quickly evaporated to be burned as fuel for the necessary sprint to the end of the semester.

My students had a significant final exam.  They wrote an essay in addition to a multiple choice exam that covers everything we’ve studied to date.  We have a two-hour block reserved for final exams and I intend to use the time to give a proper final exam.  I see it as a pedagogical responsibility to help my students learn how to study for an exam of such magnitude.  In a high school environment their grades are (usually) calculated on a combination of homework, in-class participation, essays and tests.  As such, for most students, the final exam has a significant impact on their final grade, but is not the most important factor.  This is a relatively (relative to their likely college experience) low-stakes way to teach the process of studying for a final exam without simply throwing them out of the nest with the hope that they’ll learn to fly.

And I do teach it – how to study.  We spent the last two weeks prior to the exam covering essay writing and methods to review for an exam.  This is paramount.  As educators, we suffer from a mistaken idea that if we simply tell students to study, they will, and they will study well.  Like absolutely everything, if we expect students to do a good job at something, we have to teach them how to do a good job.  Studying for my exam requires something different than studying for a math exam, or a regular unit exam.  If I want students to be able to study well, I need to make it clear how to go about it.  As such, I’ve made the choice of emphasizing skill-based lessons in my classroom as the cost of spending less time on historical content.  I’ve traded content for skills – a trade that teachers all over (and particularly in AP classes) are loath to make.  I am extremely confident that this is the right choice.  Historical content can easily be found through a quick search or by flipping through a book.  The skills of how to study or how to write, are easily transferable to future situations.

As is my wont, I pushed my students outside their comfort zones in the process, giving them an authentic need to apply the skills we’ve practiced.  They’re used to supports like review packets and being told precisely what to study for a given exam.  I chose instead to partially remove some supports by having them create their own study guide.  They have guides to the most important information from each chapter we’ve studied to date, and so it should be manageable to compile that into a master list of what is on the final.

It is a difficult balance to support student success while also helping them be independently successful.  I’ve said before that the best judgment of my success is whether my students can apply their learning from my classes once they no longer have me as a teacher.  Teaching academic independence is much harder than teaching how the Ottomans sacked Constantinople in 1453, but it is significantly more useful once they leave my class.

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