my palms sweat

Happens every time this year, twice, no, thrice, at the end of every semester. They’re taking the final for whatever class they’ve been taking from me. And I wonder.

What stuck? Rubbing foreheads and grimaces and furrowed brows all make me second-guess that clever stem or the clarity of choices. They’re so nervous.

A few years ago I made all the answers on my Interpersonal final “C”. I was finishing my grad work in assessment psychology and thought I’d try that little experiment. It was fascinating. By number six or seven, test-takers were beginning to see the pattern and it freaked them out. A couple, student-athlete types, filled in all the Cs on their Scantrons and were quick to leave the classroom.

Others labored over every single option, because certainly the next one couldn’t be C again. It just couldn’t be. By sixteen, seventeen, a few broke down. One started to cry. There were fifty questions on this assessment.

I threw the test out. Of course. I wouldn’t count it towards their grade. But it confirmed for me the efficacy of anxiety in test-taking; how it’s turned to such a nail-biter, an escalation that does little more than interfere with that neurological response everyone is banking on to do well. Yes, I compounded it, but they had it to begin with.

Some students are laughing as I write this while they take the test. This final has a few humorous stems to reduce the anxiety; a release valve. And that makes me smile.

How is it that we’ve come this far in an academic process to have its very value, its assessment, undermined by fear and loathing? Shouldn’t it be, instead, as a manifestation of all that was learned over the semester, or the baccalaureate for that matter, something more engaging and joyful? Something that says, “I embraced this, sweated over it, examined it, made sense out of it, and now I want to tell you all about it!”

And that’s why my palms sweat, not just because I want my students to do well on the final, but because the process of the final is inherently flawed and does not accurately measure achievement – not when fear is induced and used as impetus to succeed.

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