Thursday, November 30, 2006
At this time of year I am inundated with students who are stressed about upcoming exams and in particular the multiple choice format that many of these exams will take. I give them all my standard advice: practice, practice, practice. Why? Well, certainly not because when they don’t get this as the punch line to the joke, “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” it makes me feel really ancient, but rather because it (hopefully) works.
Practicing multiple choice questions from a variety of sources gives students more fluency in the language of the topic they are being tested on. I analogize (and I analogize a lot, it is a lot like, whoops…) it to moving to a new city and doing the crossword puzzle in the local newspaper. When I lived in New York and did the puzzle (on Mondays and Tuesdays only), and the clue was, “off-white,” the answer was usually “ecru.” Here in Boston, (where I can sometimes last until Thursday) the answer is, “beige.” How did I realize this? The same way you get the Wang Center.
Also, sometimes (and I know this would a very rare circumstance) doctrinal professors actually get their multiple choice questions from other sources. This means that the language used in the questions may differ somewhat from the language used in class. This really can throw students off (especially ESL students), because they are not accustomed to seeing the issue raised in this slightly different terminology. Practicing questions that come from many different sources: study aids, on-line lessons or bar review books, can help a student see the “disguised” issues more frequently.
Another strategy I offer students for dealing with multiple choice questions is to read the question with the answers covered. Then, they should come up with an answer in their heads, match it to one of the options and move on (yes, you do need to uncover the answers at some point). I think this is sound advice based on my experience as the sole food shopper in my household. (I think maybe my experience in Academic Support has played a small role, but I am not sure.) Here’s why: when I go shopping without a list, I find that I end up with many items I don’t need, fail to get some items I do need and invariably spend more time and money than I intended.
Multiple choice answers use the same marketing approach as the supermarket: make it look good, and they will buy. Almost every answer on your exam will look plausible if not downright compelling (like that $1.00 giant tub of Fluff sitting in my cabinet). That is the nature of the beast. If you go shopping for an answer, chances are you will be pulled in by the display. If you have a list (or the answer in your head) prior to your shopping trip, you are more likely to make the right choices.
And finally, like grocery shopping, you should never go to your exams hungry. (ezs)
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Do you ever have the student who comes to your office and acts as though nothing you say is useful? You have gone to the trouble of offering your help, but he behaves as if he has been summoned to the principal’s office for a lecture. Or perhaps you have had the student who listens intently to all you have to say yet spends the semester doing none of the things you suggested and is back the following semester asking your advice.
Those encounters can be really disheartening because they make us feel that our efforts are having no impact. They can trigger bouts of insecurity because they make us feel that our efforts are somehow deficient. They can trigger resentment because they make us feel that our efforts have been wasted.
At those times, it is good to remember that everyone wastes another’s efforts somewhere along the line. We have all ignored the time, effort, and even friendship that others have offered; and we have no real excuse for having done so. Yet still we do it.
I think it may be simply a part of being human. Self-involved, we look past the gifts in front of us, ignore the time and energy expended on us, underestimate the importance of the efforts made on our behalf. We do not do so because we are mean-spirited. We usually do so because we are blind to what is ours for the taking, looking for a better answer, or at least an answer that better suits our short-sighted desires. In other words, we do so out of run-of-the-mill ignorance and self-centered ingratitude.
So why be surprised or disheartened when some of our students ignore or even scorn our efforts? They are just being human, thinking they know more than they do and dismissing sound advice in their ignorance. As Ellen Suni often says, they don’t know what they don’t know. Most of the time, their ingratitude stems from their frustration at falling short in an endeavor – schooling – that has never been a challenge to them before. It is only human that they resent our suggesting that they need help. It is only human that they believe they need do nothing more than work a little harder or find professors who “grade more fairly.”
It is also human to wake up at some point and realize what has been offered. Sometimes it is too late; sometimes it is just in the nick of time; and, I suppose, sometimes it never happens. Most of the time, it is somewhere in between. Most of the time, despite their embarrassment and their natural tendency to cover it with a sham confidence and indifference, they actually learn from us.
It is also human to do what we sometimes do: to let the few obscure the many who show their appreciation by taking our help seriously. Most students are grateful for the help we give, and most put it to good use. We should resist our natural reactions to those who do not and remember that even those who seem to waste our efforts learn more than they let on. Sometimes they are just busy being human. (dbw)