When Class Runs Behind Schedule, & Making Fair Tests

This post is an answer to Dorian Speed’s question here, since as usual I have more to say than reasonably belongs in the combox.

The topic is: When you are waaay behind schedule teaching class, how do you handle year-end?  And then, what is a fair testing method, that reflects realistic expectations? My answers:

Re: Behind Schedule

At the beginning of the year, I asked my DRE what she preferred. Our class always gets behind schedule, so I knew this was coming.  So I asked her if she preferred we move quickly, per the syllabus, but with less depth, or allow ourselves to get way behind, but cover the topic more thoroughly.  She voted “I’d rather they learn a few things well than many things hardly at all”, so that’s what we do.

–> I do try to keep the class moving forward, but there is no year-end race to quick cover twenty topics in twenty minutes.

In my opinion, the slow-is-okay method can work, for several reasons:

First of all, our curriculum tends to be front-loaded.   Hits all the essentials in the first few chapters.  So if the students only make it part way through the book, they’ve still covered a lot of high-priority stuff.

The second reason go-slow works, is that as I teach I’m naturally making lots of connections.  Dorian, I’m going to bet your bible study class is doing the same thing.  It’s impossible to teach a chapter in the bible without naturally referring to ten other scripture passages, three doctrines, a sacrament or four,  and maybe a few good pious customs and a personal story about the love of God thrown in for good measure.  The reason class goes slowly is because you are covering more than what is one the page. So you aren’t actually teaching less than planned.  Just different than planned.

–> There are times when this is a disaster.  Any kind of technical class, such as “how do I receive communion” for the first communion class, needs to cover the core of the topic, all the way through.  So it’s important to know whether the class topic and the class goal are the same thing.  The topic might be “the bible”, but if the goal is, “teenagers engaging in the scriptures and developing confidence in their ability to study the bible”, your class has a lot more flexibility than if the goal is, “memorize the key theme of each book of the bible”.

And then the kids ask questions. At the start of class, our opening prayer always includes “help each student learn what they need to know”.  Now if I’m on the Trinity and you ask me about the reason we use paper money, I’m going tell you that we will discuss that during the car line after class.  But if you have a question about ‘what is a mortal sin’ or ‘do I really have to go to mass on Sunday’, I’m probably going to answer you then and there, not wait until we get to that chapter ten weeks from now.  Kids come into the new year with a whole summer of questions about God and the faith stacked up, so the first few weeks will rabbit trail.

If I’m teaching my students what they need to know — evidenced by the fact that they a) don’t know b) want to know and c) it’s essential to the faith– then I’m doing my job. I’m not behind.  I’m at the right place and the right time.

And then the final reason we tend to run behind is that we get interruptions in the program such as “Father will hear confessions for all 5th graders during class next week”.  So we stop and review the sacrament of confession ASAP, rather than waiting until it shows up in the curriculum next spring.  So again, not behind so much as skipping around.

(Dorian, this last one may not apply to you.  But I’m sure my parish isn’t the only one that inserts special events into the  schedule.  And then there’s my saint’s party.  Guilty as charged.)

Re: What Makes a Fair Test?

I’m still working on this, but here’s what I do:

I write a study guide for each chapter. It’s a fill-in-the-blank outline of the material from the book that I want the students to learn.  (And sometimes, one or two additional notes if they are relevant.)  As we study the chapter, the kids fill in their answers.  This both helps them to learn the material, and it keeps me accountable to make sure that I taught them everything I meant to cover.

The week before the test, I send home study guides with answers filled in. I did this for the first time for all students this year, though I’ve made completed guides in the past to give to kids who missed class.   So I send them home with exactly what they need to study.  All answers to the test are on the page and in their hands seven days in advance.  And I tell them to study.

The week before the test, we do a quick review session. In particular, this year I went over questions that tripped up students in the past.  I also take open Q&A on anything that students might not understand.

When I build the test, I customize it to the class. I pull up the previous year’s tests, and nix any questions that maybe we didn’t get to this year, or that were a flop last year.   And I try to match the difficulty of the question to how well I want students to know the material.  For example, this year I made my saint  questions a matching exercise — I’m happy if you can just figure out who’s who by me jogging your memory plus a little process of elimination.  In contrast, my nasty tricky trinity question that weeds out the heretics? I keep it mean.   If you can’t keep straight St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, not the end of the world.  If you can’t keep straight the Trinity, we have a problem.

I also use my tests to teach. I design them to reinforce more ideas than what they test, and to toss out ideas that are going to come up in later years or later chapters.  For example, given the choice between three different saint facts I could use to describe St. Augustine, I pick the one that reinforces something else we’ve been studying.  On a multiple-choice question, the “wrong” answers are never random.  They are either common errors related to the topic, or correct answers to questions they will see another day.

–> The test is going to cost me a whole class period, when you count the review session, the test, and then going over the answers.   By tweaking my test design, I’m not losing that hour, because the test itself is building up and reinforcing their education.

I also have a productive handout for the kids to work on when they finish the test. So they aren’t sitting there coloring while they wait for the other students to finish.   The one I used last week was a look-up-bible-verses worksheet.  (Not my own — a really fun one.)  Something like that helps equalize the class, because everyone can do as much or as little as they have the time to manage.  My super-fast kids aren’t bored and they are learning new material, and my need-more-time kids aren’t keeping the rest of the class waiting.

After-the-test worksheets, by the way, are great for teaching skills that don’t lend themselves to testing.  It’s a handy way to manage class time, because you’re using an otherwise unusable time slot to cover material that would have sucked up lecture minutes if you did the work during a regular class.  So it helps with the time crisis.


Anyway, that’s what I do.  Or try to.  I pull from the resources in the back of my teacher’s manual as much as I can, but I do ending up putting a fair bit of work into making my own tests and study guides.  I’m fortunate that I’ve been teaching the same grade and same book for three years now, so I can recycle my work from year to year.

–> I know other catechists in my program don’t do this, and I wouldn’t expect them to. This is where my strength is.   Other teachers have completely different teaching styles, and I think that over the cycle of the religious ed program, the students benefit from that.





7 thoughts on “When Class Runs Behind Schedule, & Making Fair Tests

  1. “The reason class goes slowly is because you are covering more than what is one the page.”

    Absolutely. The Bible is (like Catholicism) a web, not a thread. Moving forward all the time in a Bible class instead of going sideways as appropriate prevents the students from getting the big picture.

    In my class I count on no more than 75% forward.

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