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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tomorrow's Professor: Writer's Block: An Essay Test-Taker's Bane

Last semester I had a student in my class who was a real conundrum. He was very smart, very engaging, very eager to learn . . . and very rotten at the essays on the test. He did fairly well on the multiple choice items. When we had discussions in class, his questions and answers were very insightful and showed that he really did understand the material. But sometimes he wouldn?t even try to write the essay answers.

I confronted him after a class in which I returned yet another test on which he hadn?t done the essay questions. He said that he froze up when he had to write something out. He knew the answer, but didn?t know where to begin. Rather than waste time trying to get going on the essays, he put his efforts into getting the other questions right. He looked pretty discouraged, so I asked him to come see me and we?d figure out how to overcome his block, because that?s really what it sounded like?writer?s block.

Obviously my student was suffering from a common malady, something we?ve all experienced. Staring at a blank space on a page and trying to corral our roiling thoughts is frightening. For a student who is shaky in his self-efficacy for learning in the first place, this could be interpreted by him as yet another example of why he doesn?t deserve to be in college.

I?m not an expert in writer?s block, but I know about learning. I decided to disentangle the two parts of an essay in order to give him a chance to practice what was causing the most problem. He knew the material already; he just couldn?t get started writing. First we decided that he needed to convert his success with multiple choice items into support for writing practice. I suggested he take an old exam and convert the multiple choice questions he?d answered correctly into essay questions and write out the prose answer that caused him to choose the answer that he chose. So, for example, if the multiple choice question stem said ?Which of the following examples illustrates the idea of cognitive load?? he would write out why he had chosen the answer he had. Since he already knew his choice was correct, he didn?t have to worry about his reasoning.

A second technique was for him to write out essay questions that he figured I would be likely to ask on the test, a strategy frequently used by good students. Then he could write his own answer as well. This has two benefits. First, by thinking about what I might ask, he would be focusing on key ideas. Second, by writing about this before the exam, he would have an opportunity to think through an answer before he was under the pressure of the actual exam. This technique separated the coming up with an answer from the writing it down. In the real test, he had to do both. By doing a little forecasting about what would be on the test, he?d only have to remember what he had already written during studying.

The third strategy was to find a test preparation buddy, a classmate who would trade essay question ideas before the test. Both of them would write out five or six questions and exchange them. This should help because he would now have reached the stage of responding to someone else?s questions, just as he would have to do on the real test.

I?d like to report that he did splendidly on the next exam, but he didn?t. But at least he tried to answer the essay questions that time. I hope he found the ideas useful, but he showed me that maybe the reasons for poor essay performance had nothing to do with his ideas, just the need for practice in writing them down.



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