We are all familiar with the saying “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink!” Well maybe not, but you can make him thirsty and he will search out the water. The same can be said for students and knowledge. Some just have more thirst for learning than others. It can be frustrating to spend time constructing lessons and then have people not pay attention. Those same folks will be lost souls in the lab because they did not prepare. They don’t exhibit a thirst for knowledge. It would be easy to just write these students off and deal with the people who want to learn. The trouble is, they are not always the same students. Because students are people, they come to class with distractions that can get in the way of learning. You cannot cure their sick child, balance their bank statement, or get them a date with the cute girl across the hall, but you can create a thirst for air conditioning knowledge that can replace these worries for an hour or so.
There are many methods employed to get students focused on the material. They are as individual as instructors. One overlooked technique for teaching is testing. There is nothing like an impending test to create a thirst for knowledge. They want to know what is on the test. So right before a test, give a quick review of things you really want them to know. Keep the number of items covered to a minimum so they can remember them. Of course the time is limited as well because you still have a test to give. What you cover should be helpful to the students when they take the test, otherwise they will not listen the next time. Try not to just give away questions, but cover the material in a more general fashion. For example you can briefly discuss the relationship of voltage, resistance, and current by offering a few shout outs like “when resistance increases the current” … class responds “decreases.” Then the test can have some word problems that call for understanding the relationship of voltage, resistance, and current.
For most students, the test just makes them thirstier. They want to know how they did right after they complete the test. If time permits, grade the test immediately upon completion. My favorite technique for this is to have the students grade their own tests. I have them put away their pens and pencils and I hand out markers. Then I go through the test, answer each question, and discuss any issues. Students will ask questions at this point that they leave unasked in class. The discussion becomes a powerful lesson. Of course you still have to grade them. Students occasionally neglect to mark a few wrong answers when grading their own papers. The point is really not to have them do the grading, but to see how they did and learn from the experience. A word of caution: do not have them grade each other’s test. I know teachers may have used that technique on you in the past, but it is a violation of FERPA. FERPA is a relatively new federal law that guarantees students the right to privacy regarding their educational records. Since the point is for the students to learn how they did, it would not make sense for them to be grading someone else’s test.
What about cheating? Certainly some students will view this as an opportunity to “answer” the questions while they are being discussed. That is why they must put away their pens and pencils – to avoid temptation. But in the end, who are they cheating – themselves! Cheating in a class you are not compelled to take where you are preparing for your future just really does not make sense. When a student turns in a test with a low grade they gave themselves I have learned two valuable things: I did a poor job teaching that particular student and that student is honest.
I have a one question test for all of you: Are you making your students thirsty?