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“I think the answer is A but the last two answers were A, at least I’m pretty sure, and what are the chances of three A’s in a row? Maybe the teacher is trying to trick us. It could be a trick. Or maybe they’re just trying to throw me off by making me think it’s a trick. I could have sworn my notes said it was A but – oh no, what if my notes were wrong?!”

Sound familiar? Maybe not all students have these kinds of panic spirals when they take tests, but I sure do. Or at least I did before I realized something very important: I wasn’t taking tests, I was doing assessments. Yes, there is a difference.

The word “test” brings to mind adversaries and tricks – tests by various gods of ancient heroes and prophets; product testing where they try everything to break the screen on the newest smartphone; unit testing in programming where they try to break the code. “Tests” feel like tricks and traps set up to catch the weak points.

On the other hand, an assessment aims to evaluate or estimate ability and understanding. An assessment isn’t a set of tricks and traps, but rather questions. There is another key difference to me: a teacher tests a student, but an assessment evaluates everyone, the teachers and the students.

Yes, teachers assign grades based on assessments because they have to evaluate the students in some qualitative manner, but that isn’t the goal of assessments. The goal is to evaluate how well the teacher has communicated the information and how well the student has absorbed it.

When I realized this, I was able to reframe how I viewed in-class assessments. Yes, they are graded and yes, those grades matter, but in-class assessments are not meant to be an hour of questioning my teachers’ motives. They are a collection of questions intended to evaluate how well my teachers’ instruction worked and how well I had understood the material.

With that thought in mind, here are some helpful questions to ask while preparing for an in-class assessment:

What were the key things the teacher was trying to communicate?

  • One idea is to write an outline of key topics, with sub-lists of the important points about each topic. Use this outline to make sure you don’t miss anything while reviewing for the in-class assessment.

What were the common mistakes and misunderstandings the teacher mentioned to watch out for?

  • This can vary depending on the subject – in world languages, it might be false cognates; in chemistry, it might be easily confused elements; in history, it might be events that get misunderstood. Teachers are often explicit about these common errors, which, if students aren’t attentive, can lead them to be more confused. Instead, making note of those common pitfalls can help students avoid them.

How did the teacher communicate different information?

  • Teachers know that all students learn differently. Because of this, teachers try to express important topics numerous times in different mediums. They also normally communicate important points more concretely; they might communicate important information through handouts or a PowerPoint while less important things might only be communicated orally. Noticing how something is communicated will help you know where to focus your attention.

With this kind of reframing, students can approach in-class assessments as the evaluation of the collaborative effort between teacher and student, and not worry about whether the last four multiple-choice answers have all been C.