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When most students fail your test: 'What would an excellent teacher do?'

If the majority of students in a class do poorly on a test, how do we know whether the kids didn’t learn the material or the teacher didn’t teach it?

Or at least teach it effectively?

When students fail en masse, should teachers reconsider the format of the class and how they are teaching the content?

I have talked to teachers who have thrown out the pacing guide after realizing their students are unprepared and require a more fundamental approach to the material. Of course, going back to basics means the students may not be ready for the end-of-the-year exams in the class.

A college professor takes up this issue in a thoughtful blog this week. I am sharing part of it here as she poses questions that most teachers have probably asked themselves at some point in their careers.

I would love to hear the answers.

In “Stories from the Front (of the Classroom), religious studies professor Kate Blanchard writes she gave a mid-term exam with high hopes as the class had been progressing well and the students seemed to get it. But the average score on the mid-term test was a low D.

Blanchard writes: ( Please read her full blog before commenting. This is only an excerpt.)

If there had been at least a handful of A’s, I would have worried less. An extremely high percentage of students in my classes are there to fulfill a humanities requirement; they aren’t necessarily interested in religion, and they hope it will be an easy course. These students don’t expect to work much and a bad mid-term grade can be a useful wake-up call. But when even the most engaged students can’t break a low B, it’s clear that something is amiss at my end of things.

A professor I admire says his teaching philosophy is to have high expectations for his students; expect the best of them and they will never fail to give it to you. So I continue to require (what I hear is) “a lot” of reading in my intro courses, because I am trying to set the bar high and let them rise to the occasion. I also don’t spoon-feed them information in bullet points; although I occasionally stand and use slides, I usually sit and lead discussions about the readings… in which I often end up doing most of the talking. Most of them sit slack-jawed and take few notes, but some answer questions or make comments.

The question for you, dear readers, is: What do I do now? Do I “dumb down” the class... Do I just plow ahead with my current plans, knowing some of them will fail or drop out, while hoping others will be inspired to work harder? I have seven more weeks to get them to want to learn something. What would an excellent teacher do?



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.