Finishing: The endless battle

In second grade, letter grades were something I only paid any attention to once a year and the end of the year ceremony when I got my report card. I was a B student. The teacher gave us each a cheesy picture of a bunch of kids playing on a playground and swing set under a big cartoon sun. We had just learned about flash floods with our science teacher – terrible surprising things that catch people off guard. The more I looked at that cheesy smilie face of a sun, the more I could picture the footage of flash floods, full of before and after shots. So soon the kids in the drawing were kayaking over to their neighbors’ houses, designing the new rules of an underwater playground, and going on daring expeditions to retrieve canned goods from their basements, swimming and kayaking around the house. If I had thought more about grades at the time I might have even put some of it on paper. But I doubt I would have crafted a story that excited me enough that I would actually remember it any other way. I don’t think I was as upset about turning in an almost empty page as I was that they hadn’t given me enough time to finish. I was kind of jealous of my friends who had written out their stories, but secretly I still thought my story was the best.

In high school on the other hand I designed for myself a desire for grades – I was not forced into one. After the third grade I wasn’t given grades – a smattering of tests in math and such, but never course grades – until I was in high school. In high school biology I found I wanted these tests. I love biology.  But test for me allowed me to say I was finished with this module and it was time to move on.  It gave me closure. Which is I think, the best and worst part about testing. Testing can lead to an “I’m finished” attitude. If you need to foster curiosity and motivation, this is the counterproductive. But testing was important for me, to solve the opposite problem. I would absorb everything in my biology text, memorize it, read it over and over, and the test was the thing that would convince me it was actually time to move on. It helped progress.   It broke something big into manageable pieces. And – even though this is a two-sided coin – it gave me a sense of completion. I content that a sense of completion, and a deadline for completion, can be a really useful thing.

I think there can be a tradeoff between motivation and completion. I never struggled with motivation. I did struggle with completion. I think we need to recognize that being motivated to do something and being motivated to finish something are not the same thing.

So the question is, which is better?   The sense of accomplishment at a completed module, and the work behind it? Or the sense of pride at a blank-page that was better than the rest?

4 thoughts on “Finishing: The endless battle”

  1. I see what you mean about a sense of completion. I’ve always had a bit (ok, a lot) of “completion anxiety.” I find leaving things unfinished very stressful. In fact, when I was young my mother brought me to a child psychiatrist to talk about that. He went out to speak to her at the end of the appointment and she asked where I was. He said, “She wouldn’t leave. She isn’t finished coloring her picture yet.”

    I do agree that tests have their place. They divide a big topic into manageable chunks in a way that projects don’t. They also have a very satisfying (to me) sense of completion. Two hours, pencils down, you’re done. On to the next topic. So I guess the question becomes, how can we give tests that are meaningful and ask questions that test students’ skills, not just their memories? And how do we do that without the entire focus of the class becoming “Will this be on the test?”

  2. I agree with Laura. There are some very good tests that can help students realize where they are regarding a specific topic.

    You mentioned something that I always think about, completion. I was listening to a student 5 minutes ago discussing with his professor in the next office. She kept saying we didn’t have enough time, and the professor kept answering back you all had 1:30 hours to finish the test. I keep wondering are we assessing speed or knowledge? If a student that believes have the answers is not able to finish a test on time, is it the student’s fault? or there was a problem with the way the test was designed? Again, I don’t think we are measuring your ability to finish a task, I think we are supposed to be measuring how well you understand a specific topic.

    I understand that completion is good and necesary, but I also think it depends on the bigger purpose. Some times we need more than turning the page and closing the book, sometimes we need to keep going back to one or other chapter and don’t close the book at all.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. I agree, I feel like testing does lead an “I’m finished” attitude. Working through study guides and memorizing PowerPoint slides for the test may not always be the best way to retain information. However, I could see tests being useful in a way to keep pace or stay on track when learning difficult material. I also feel like other students may not learn best when assessed in that way. Those that lack self-motivation to learn the content may not retain anything they have quickly memorized to pass the test. So how much will a student actually retain for practical application and as future professional?

  4. I mentioned repeated testing in my blog post i.e. more tests rather than less tests. Carrie mentioned in her comment on my blog that such an effect is actually referred to as the “testing effect” and has proven to be very effective in the learning process. I particularly enjoyed a course I took in my senior year of undergraduate where we had to take 8-10 tests in the semester (no homework). I thought having these many tests was ridiculous, but this format worked so well. Although, the tests were not cumulative, having knowledge of the previous ideas, concepts was key in solving subsequent tests/exams. I agree that such a concept may not work for a field like Biology that relies a lot on memorization, where it is easy to say “I’m finished” and move on.

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