Honesty is the Best Policy

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

-Dr. Richard Feynman – California Institute of Technology 1974 Commencement Address

A tragedy in one act:

Teacher: Ok students, please answer these questions and then we’ll go over all of the answers.

(10ish minutes elapse. Students work to answer as many questions correctly as possible.)

Teacher: Alright, let’s go over these questions. Please correct any you’ve answered incorrectly. 

(Teacher, and maybe students, work through all of the questions, providing the correct answers. Teacher provides commentary to assist students with understanding the correct answers.)

(After covering all of the questions, students look down at their paper, see they have all of the correct answers now and assume they know all of the material.)

End scene.

To an extent, I believe this is a somewhat common occurrence in the classroom; a lot of assuming and bad habits formed throughout the years of teaching and learning. The students assume they’ve learned the material because they now have all of the correct answers. The teacher assumes students know the information because they’ve covered it now a second time. In reality, if the students knew the subject matter, they would have answered the questions correctly, without any assistance, before going over the answers with the whole class. (I’ve got two nice activities for making this process very explicit for both teacher and students here and here…really takes the assumption about learning out of the picture). 

All of this assuming about learning comes to a head on final assessment day. It usually manifests itself through bewildered students who cannot believe they don’t know the answers and score much poorer than they believed they would. Teachers may also be a bit in shock because the students did so well on the above activity, when the answers were handed out and little true assessment of learning was administered. 

For one reason or another, students and teachers aren’t being honest with one another. This may occur because of a lack of understanding about what a valid assessment of learning is or it may (especially with students) stem from a fear of finding out you don’t know as much as you thought you knew. 

But, honesty is the best policy.

It isn’t fun to find out you’re wrong. When done correctly, formative assessment illuminates the known and the unknown for learners. This is an integral piece in the continuum of learning. From the student’s perspective, being able to separate what you know from what you don’t know provides an honest appraisal of learning and helps to tailor future studies of the material. Prioritizing unknown or confusing subject matter for practice (when time is limited) before studying the known just makes logical sense to me, but I’m not sure a majority of students think in that manner. When they study, they study everything. An honest assessment of learning may not be desirable because it highlights holes in their understanding, but it can also make their studying more efficient and effective. 

Plus, as I tell my students, you’d rather find out now that you don’t know the material than on the test. If you’re finding out on the test, it’s too late. Endure the temporary ‘pain’ of finding out you don’t know something on an ungraded assessment, so you can fill those holes and answer correctly on an assessment that is graded. 

An honest assessment also benefits the teacher. Having a truer understanding of the classes’ knowledge level allows instructors to adjust, if needed, and better serve the students. I’m sure many teachers, including myself, have given a test where a large majority of the class misses a particular question that “you know you went over with them in class”. But, if 70% or 80% of your class misses questions pertaining to that information, perhaps what was clear and understood to you was not to the learners (see curse of knowledge). This experience is frustrating for both teacher and student. 

Honesty is the best policy.

So, what are some tell-tell signs of an honest formative assessment?

  1. Students use only their brain to answer questions. Any aids (be they notes, the textbook, or a peer) only lead to a false understanding of what is known or unknown.
  2. Recall questions more than recognition. Recall questions (fill-in-the-blank, short-answer, essay) force students to rely only on information they can retrieve with no cues. Using recognition questions (multiple-choice, matching) allows students to use cues to retrieve information. Those cues may not be available on later assessments or when the context of retrieving the material changes.***
  3. Asking students to identify whether they guessed. Getting a question correct because of guessing isn’t indicative of a true, honest assessment. Guessing only muddies the water of a clear understanding. By having students denote questions where their confidence is low, you’re providing another filter to weed out any assumptions about their learning.

Being honest with ourselves, as teachers, and explicitly talking with and teaching our students about being honest with themselves with respect to their understanding is incredibly important. While it may be a bit different and uncomfortable at first, formative assessment that reliably and validly evaluates learning can become an effective and efficient habit for learners. It just takes honest conversations with students and opportunities for practice to make truer, honest assessments the norm. 

Circling back to Dr. Feynman’s quote at the beginning of this article; both teachers and students don’t want to be foolish with instruction and learning, and we are the easiest to fool.

***Recognition questions aren’t all bad. In fact, they are extremely useful as an assessment for learning. Here are strategies I use to leverage multiple-choice questions for learning: here, here, here, and here.

Feature image by Yustinus Tjiuwanda on Unsplash.

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