Thursday, March 15, 2012

Everyone Failed (and What's Up With Probability?)

In a job interview, I was once asked how I would respond if my entire class did poorly on a test.

I answered that I would look for another way to teach the topic and re-assess the students, but I also said that this was an unlikely scenario in my classroom. I plan to know if my students are struggling (and do something about it) before a big test rolls around. Test scores rarely surprise me . . . until recently.

I had an all-class fail. The words "all-class" and "fail" are a bit of an exaggeration, but the majority of my students scored below an 80% with lots of failing grades. Ugh.

I am content with how I navigated the aftermath. Now I am just thinking about how to avoid the entire scenario in the future. Here is what I have learned:

1.  It is never okay to skip some type of formative assessment. I was in a rush for part of the unit, and I relied way too much on facial expressions and nodding heads and trusted that the students were understanding.

2.  Adjust for extra time with wacky schedules. We had a weird week with in-service and parent-teacher conferences right in the middle of this unit. I saw my students one full day and two half days for that entire week. I kept plowing through.

3.  The importance of #1 doubles if it is your first time teaching a topic. I rarely teach any topics that I haven't taught before. This unit was 100% from scratch. Planning was a struggle. I had no reference point for knowing which parts would be difficult for students, what common errors would occur, and such.

Finally, what's up with probability?

Is the whole permutation/combination/probability thing just really hard to teach? It seems innocent enough on the surface, but I am now convinced of its underlying evil.

Next time will be better, I'm sure.


  1. I sympathize. I recently spent an extra week on exponents with my pre-algebra students because they didn't do as well as I would have liked on the test. There are a couple of things I wonder about when this occurs.
    (1) How much of the idea of a "test" led to them performing poorly? They do quite well on homework- they always have it done and it's usually done well.
    (2) Were the test questions designed to truly ask students to demonstrate what they know? How much of it is the test itself and how much of it is the understandings of the students.
    (3) What is failing? My students got an 80% average which isn't bad in most classrooms I think, but this is a group of students who usually get 90% averages on tests. Is it sometimes good to push students on tests out of their comfort zone? Or is a test merely to get students to spout what they know?

    Maybe it wasn't your teaching or the student's understandings- maybe the test questions were framed in such a way as to cause anxiety and confusion? I'm really torn about the value of tests at all. Almost always when a student gets a problem wrong on a test and I ask them to work the same problem in front of me on the white board, they get it right or they really do understand what they're doing. Is the test for us or for them? If it's for them- what part of the testing experience helps them? I used to think that the test itself isn't that important- it's the studying for the test that I want students to do. Now maybe I think the point of the test is to see how flexible their knowledge is. Sorry. I'm going all over the place. I'm sick with the flu right now. I'll stop. But I don't think you should necessarily blame your teaching for these test results.

  2. Re what's up with probability:
    Yep, it's way hard to teach, and way hard to understand. You have seen the 3 doors problems, right? (aka Monty Hall)

    People are often absolutely sure of the wrong answer. Een mathematicians.

  3. I think "everyone failed" happens to many teachers and to the best of us, at least once a year. Lizzy is right, it's not you because Sue is right, probability is still a learning curve among math teachers, myself totally included. I always second guess myself. Re:"It is never okay to skip some type of formative assessment," I have been doing regular "my favorite no" especially with my 6th graders, and it's so good to catch these mistakes early!

  4. Thank you all for the encouragement and suggestions. This unit is at the top of my list for a redo next year, but it is good to know that there is hope for improvement and that I am not alone in experiencing these kinds of challenges.