Welcome to The Matrix!

Ready to see how deep the rabbit hole goes, Neo?Image result for edgar dale 10%

Looking to change the game on what otherwise might have had to be a giant end of unit test where students have to keep track of a whole bunch of course content all at once?

Welcome to The Matrix.

Because let’s face it — we cover A LOT of content in our classrooms! And sometimes, we need to make sure that our students are keeping track of all the important stuff we’ve encountered along the way. Naturally, this gives rise to the age-old practice of quizzes and testing — regular “checks for understanding” that interrupt our regularly scheduled course curricula with almost disappointing familiarity, grinding momentum to a halt and tasking students to brain dump all the answers to every question we can possibly think to ask on two sides of a sheet of paper, a timed essay writing prompt, or a 40-minute exam period.

Here’s the problem though:

Most tests are, like, really, really bad.

But like, how bad is bad? Very. In Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins explain:

We agree that many test questions involve recall and low-level thinking. What simply does not follow logically, however, is that “coverage” and test prep are the best ways to prepare students for such test items. This confuses cause and effect. The implied two premises in the defense of coverage are that “If I covered it, you now know it and will easily give it back on a test when prompted,” and “this is therefore the most efficient preparation for tests.” But these claims are unsupportable, as a moment’s reflection on the better and worse performers in our own classes reveals. The student who has no mental framework, no ability to prioritize the content, and no points of connection with other previous content and experience will find initial learning difficult and long-term recall unlikely. The “coverer” is confusing the input with the output, the hope with the yield. “Teaching by mentioning” works only for the most bright, able, and motivated students.

The low yield of success from coverage is even more likely to occur if the external test questions look different than the questions used by the teacher in a local assessment. As the research on the ability to transfer makes clear, students who learned only for rote recall have little success in handling unfamiliar or novel-looking test questions.

Finally we would note our own audits of local tests in comparison with released state tests: local assessments mimic the format but not the rigor of state assessment questions. Often, local tests, even in high performing districts, have a smaller percentage of higher-order questions than is found on state and national tests.


Teachers write chapter and unit tests with the best of intentions, often modeling our question format off of the big scary monster exams our kids will see in standardized exams like state assessments or the SAT. But the difference is? Those big scary monster exams are the product of thousands of hours of research and development. Professionally vetted over years of trial and error. Hundreds of sets of eyes review, revise, and rework every last possible question. And individual question items are STILL routinely tossed out altogether each year when the data suggests that a question was unfair or misleading in any way.

In short: our exams might “look” like the real thing, but it’s typically a cheap dollar store knockoff version at best. All the sizzle and none of the steak.

Bottom line: lectures only work for the strongest students, and most traditional homemade assessments are awful.

So what’s a teacher to do?

For starters: empathize.

Our students can be incredibly overwhelmed as they try to make sense of just what, where, and how all of these wildly disparate ideas we’ve been throwing at them just so happen to overlap and connect with one another. And yes, teachers absolutely need to make sure that the learners in our classrooms are picking up what we’re putting down along the way. But this typically results in classrooms going one of two traditional routes:

  1. Giving Students a Quiz or Test — There! That’ll show ’em, right? After all, it’s been two full weeks since we first introduced all this material. Let’s keep these kids on their toes and make sure they’re still paying attention, darn it! This is for their own good, after all.



    To borrow a line from Paulo Friere’s seminal 1970 text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

    “The man or woman who proclaims devotion to the cause of liberation yet is unable to enter into communion with the people, whom he or she continues to regard as totally ignorant, is grievously self-deceived. The convert who approaches the people but feels alarm at each step they take, each doubt they express, and each suggestion they offer, and attempts to impose his ‘status,’ remains nostalgic towards his origins.”

    Beating students into submission by reinforcing the entitled power dynamic between teacher and student does little to “teach a man to fish” on his own. Instead, it just creates a self-perpetuating system in which the dutiful little kiddies play the game of school every few weeks until Big Bad Teacher Man comes knocking with another scary test to scare them back into obedience.

    Teach. Fearmonger. Test.

    Rinse and repeat for 12 long years and then act all surprised when only about half of all students who enroll in college actually end up graduating.

    Sorry, but no.

    Which, of course, raises the inevitable question of the second option:

  2. Re-teaching Old Content with A Brand New Lecture All Over Again — which is, statistically, literally the single least likely tactic to move the needle in the direction of student retention. As if lecture wasn’t spotty enough to begin with without repeating ourselves, choking down that deep-seated and all too human frustration that “darnit, Billy! I already told you all this stuff! Why weren’t you paying attention the FIRST time?” tends to lead to disheartened educators and a palpable air of resentment in even the most cheerful of classrooms around the world. After all, it’s A. LOT. OF. WORK. teaching new content! Prepping slides, handouts, demonstrations, videos, etc. takes time, effort, and sustained attention — and having to repeat the same process to fill in unexpected gaps in student knowledge can really wear us out as educators while we’re the ones doing all the heavy lifting to bear the cognitive load.

    Looking at the frequently-debated-but-generally-not-awful-as-long-as-you-don’t-treat-it-as-gospel “Cone of Learning” (a.k.a. the “Cone of Experience”) model based on the research first theorized by Edgar Dale in the 1960s: we need to get our students ACTIVELY involved in their own learning along the way. And that means more than just screeching the train to a halt for a one-size-fits-none assessment.

    When we test, they bomb it, and we simply re-teach the same missed content in the form of a follow-up lecture a few days after the fact? We are simply repeating the same limited-efficacy approach that failed the first time through. Kicking the can down the road. As the old proverb goes: we’re not actually teaching a man to fish, we’re just doing the fishing for them. And if the data is to be believed? There’s a good chance that in some two weeks from now, our students will be asking us to take them right back to that same fishing hole to repeat the process all over again from scratch.

    Don’t believe me? Go ahead and give your students a blind test on any random unit exam that they aced — say — four months ago, and see just how much information they’re able to offer back your way.

A Better Mouse Trap

Look. There are no silver bullets in this line of work. Testing is a necessary hazard of the profession, and it’s academically irresponsible to expect students to demonstrate mastery if we’re not actually, ya’ know, giving them the time and the opportunity in our classrooms to demonstrate what they’ve learned. No point using a sponge that’s already sopping wet, right? At a certain point, we need to squeeze those suckers dry.

But who says exams need to be a hard stop to class momentum? And what fun discoveries might our students encounter if we turned an end-of-unit assessment into a giant game like a scavenger hunt or Sudoku?

Here’s one of my favorite low key assessments for making an AWESOME game-like experience out of any exam that you can possibly imagine:

Picture a giant concept mapping “relationships matrix,” presented much like form of an old-school BINGO board, like so:


The rules are simple:

  1. Divide students into teams and set a timer on the overhead board.
  2. Provide students with a blank matrix like the one shown above, where the same named items appear on both the horizontal and the vertical access.
  3. Task teams to fill in as many squares as they possibly can in the matrix provided before time expires, using ONLY those overlapping points of commonality that are TOTALLY UNIQUE to the two concepts / characters / events / etc. in those boxes where the items intersect.

    So, for example: In a matrix with a bunch of fairy tale characters in the square where Little Red Riding Hood and Granny overlap, you can say “Eaten by The Big Bad Wolf” — but you can’t just say “Fairy Tale Characters,” since other characters on the matrix likewise share this same trait.

    And for the squares where the name on the X axis and the name on the Y axis are the same (such that an item intersects with itself)? Use that square to fill in any singular defining trait that sets this individual item apart from every other possible item on the grid.

    Like: “The Big Bad Wolf” intersects with “The Big Bad Wolf” because they’re the only character to eat poor old Granny.

  4. Since each named item will appear on both the X and the Y access, that means that each of these names will actually intersect in two different locations on the board (because “Grandma” intersects with “Little Red Riding Hood” in one square, but “Little Red Riding Hood” also intersects with “Grandma” in a second) — meaning that students will need to find not just one, but TWO points of commonality between any two items you choose to include in your matrix.
  5. The team with the most correct items filled in on their matrix when time expires “wins” (but really, everybody wins because the test will force communication, teamwork, and complex lateral thinking regardless of which team gets the most answers correct in the allotted time). And as teams work asynchronously to complete their matrices (great word!) — you as the instructor reserve the right to hop back and forth between groups offering some gentle guidance or a helping hand to ensure that nobody stays stuck for too long.

The end result?

  • Students remain ACTIVE throughout their entire testing block, teaching themselves and one another through peer-to-peer communication and good old fashioned trial and error
  • Students collaborate, communicate, demonstrate critical thinking, and compete with rival teams to demonstrate their learning
  • The grid delivers immediate visual feedback of where students might still have gaps in content retention
  • Teachers can use this virtually ZERO-prep pedagogy for ANY course, grade level, or content area (E.G.: “How is Hydrogen like Helium? But like Helium in such a unique way that it’s different than how Hydrogen is like Iron?” Etc. etc.) — and students greet the activity with excitement, wonder, and a genuine sense of curiosity.
  • Teachers can offer differentiated, on-the-fly reteaching to help student teams get “unstuck” as they go
  • Teachers can add or remove additional rows, columns, and items to scale this same pedagogy up or down for more challenging concepts or content areas. Here’s a super advanced character relationships chart for William Faulkner’s sprawling psychological novel, As I Lay Dying:


Bingo! Just like our buddy Neo, “The Matrix” does all the heavy lifting for you. And once our students come to understand the invisible connections that move, flow, and bind this new universe of course content together? In the blink of an eye, they’ll be moving in slow-mo bullet time, brains racing a million miles a minute as they see thousands of tiny lines of knowledge zip past them in every which direction in perfect, Zen-like harmony — all while armed with the incredible confidence in their newfound ability to take on any challenge that comes their way.

Forget teaching a man to fish…

Image result for i know kung fu gif

Author: John

John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) is an English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He began his teaching career in 2010 as a career switcher through The New Teacher Project, after spending five years working in social media and event marketing. He is a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, and an alumnus of the 2016-2018 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. In 2016, he was named one of Arlington, Virginia’s “40 Under 40” by the Leadership Center for Excellence. He is a past presenter and regular attendee at educational conferences throughout the United States, including the annual conference for National Catholic Education Association, ASCD Empower19, and the Play Like a Champion Today: Character Education Through Sports summer conference at the University of Notre Dame. He’s an avid runner who’s completed more than three dozen marathons, half marathons, long-distance road relays, mud runs, and obstacle course races. John lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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