College Students and the First Exam

The time is approaching.  You are about to give your college students their first big exam.  What will the outcome be?  For some of you, I am afraid I know.

Some of your students may fail your exam.  Among that hopefully very small group, one or two difficult students may blame their failure on you.  Here are some of the ways I have seen college instructors deal with these situations:

  • Prior to the first exam, many instructors make sure their students know what to expect.  Some give study guides.  Others feel that is “teaching to the test” and avoid that practice.  Whatever you do it, you should be sure that your students are not surprised, at least those who have attended class.
  • Some faculty members give students a chance to redeem themselves if a significant percentage of students do poorly.  Some allow students to correct what they missed on the exam for a percentage of credit.  I don’t know of any who allow their students to earn full credit after bombing a test.  In my opinion, a first test accommodation is okay but only if: 1) it is fair to the students who studied and did well, and 2) it only occurs once – after the first exam.
  • Some instructors let student drop their lowest test score.  You should have put that in your syllabus.  If you like that idea, hopefully you had already put it in your syllabus.  If not, my feeling is that you can always ease up on your grading policy if:  1) you are fair and deal equitably with all your students, and 2) you do not compromise assessment of learning objectives (i.e., if you don’t give a comprehensive final, you should use a alternate means of assessment in place of that test).

If a large number of students fail your first exam, maybe you failed them.  Did you make them aware of what they would be held accountable for?  Were there poorly worded questions?  Did you fail to adequately address specific areas where students had trouble?  Did you use any type of formative assessment (i.e graded homework, quizzes, use of clickers, etc.) to see how they were doing along the way?  If you failed your students, you need to make it up!

Here is some of my teaching advice. Never lose sight of three things:

  • You must do your job, which is to give your students every opportunity to learn.
  • The objective of tests is to assess what your students know, not to search for what they might not know.
  • You are human (I think … you are, aren’t you? 😉 ) which means, even if it never happened before, you can make a mistake.  If you failed your students, confess and make it up to them.

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

September 9, 2010


About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

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