Everything in the Book

I just took the written test to convert my long-held Maine driver’s license into a California one. It was not a terribly hard test in the grand scheme of tests I have taken over time, but it was a hard test for which to study, and that got me thinking about my students.image of roundabout from CA driver's handbook

As a new teacher, I was strongly opposed to study guides on the grounds that they encouraged a top-down, spoon-feeding approach rather than pushing students to figure out for themselves what was important. I distinctly remember telling worried freshmen that figuring out what to study was part of the task.

It was an easy thing to say, because, after 23-odd years of school, I know how to study for academic tests, generically, and have known for so long that it seems to me intuitive. Although an individual teacher might put an unexpected question on a test, I would be unlikely to be so far wrong in my estimation of what was important in a body of material as to do really badly on a test. If I were, I would be inclined to blame the teacher–I have, at this point, that much faith in the unspoken norms which I have absorbed over the years.

But I didn’t know how to study for the California driver’s test at all. The handbook issued by the DMV contained several quite disparate types of information: bureaucratic details about the license application process, concrete lists of laws governing driving, advice about strategies for safe driving under various circumstances, and statistics meant to drive home the need to avoid various unsafe practices, such as leaving children in parked cars. I didn’t know how to study this book, not because I struggled with the skill of prioritizing information (as we often say of students in the same boat), but because I didn’t know anything about the person writing the test. My sense of what was important was irrelevant until I knew whether the DMV conceived of the task as a test of practical knowledge or laws, whether California bureaucrats were more interested in making sure that I had paid enough attention to the hazards of driving while drowsy or that I had understood the colors that designated different parking categories. Without this information, my only viable strategy was to rule out the most unlikely information in the book–opening hours of DMV offices, for example–and memorize everything else impartially. This, I realized, is exactly what my students do.

I had already shifted my thinking on study guides: among other things, it seems to me that getting the endless Q and A about “what’s on the test?” out of the way winds up de-emphasizing the test and clearing the ground for us to concentrate on the real questions of the course. But my DMV experience served as a vivid reminder for me that, when I ask students to decide what to study, I am really asking them to decide, not what’s important, but what I will think is important–because I’m writing the test, what I think (or what the DMV thinks) will determine success or failure. Given that inescapable fact, I think it behooves teachers to be as transparent as possible about expectations.

That’s half of my take-away from this experience:  study guides (or other devices for clearly conveying what a test is really testing) are not pandering; they’re the most efficient way to be sure students are putting their efforts where we want them.

The other half, though, has to do with that intuitive sense of what to study I was talking about.  Sooner or later, my students will have tests, in college if not before, for which they have little or no guidance. So it’s worth it to help them understand those unspoken norms. I would submit that the best way to do that, also, is to be transparent about them, to make those patterns explicit rather than implicit until they become familiar to students. Simply making them guess until they get it right, while perfectly effective in the long run, is less efficient and more painful than talking about it upfront.

In the meantime, I’m heartily grateful that, having passed the California test, I will not have to develop further expertise in the norms of motor vehicle departments. Some sorts of knowledge are more fun to acquire than others.


About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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