Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Summer Is a Comin' In: Time to Read Exams?

People agree to read thousands of psych exams in June?

As the middle English song says, "Sumer Is Icumen In."

How did you spend the early part of your summer? (Sobering thought: July 4th will be here before we know it-can Labor Day be far behind?) I spent my early summer with close to 400 friends. No, I was not attending a class reunion (alas, I seem to have a gift for missing those) or an extravagant wedding (most of my peers are long married-but I do know lots of folks who are beyond their "starter" marriages), and I wasn't at the beach; I won't make it there until August. I was taking part in the annual Advanced Placement (AP) Psychology Reading in Kansas City, MO, a gathering that is more akin to a summer camp for people who, well, like psychology a lot and want to connect with their inner geek.

That's right -- 389 other psychology teachers and yours truly took a week out of our lives to read student essays from the 2010 AP Psychology exam. Who are these teachers? Well, they are a highly motivated and dedicated bunch hailing from high school, community college, and college and university settings. All of them teach some form of introductory psychology or, in the case of the high school teachers, AP Psychology, during the academic year. They are all united by the desire to make certain that the essay portion (two essays, actually) of the exam is graded fairly and consistently.

Here is the process in brief: A committee of teachers creates scoring guidelines for each question a day or two before the readers arrive. During the first day of the reading, the readers learn to use the guidelines; that is, they apply the guidelines to various sample essays in order to learn them very well. Once they are up to speed, they spend the next 7 or so days working their way carefully through the tests. Samples of their scores are then repeatedly spot-checked by more experienced readers to verify that scoring is accurate and reliable-thus, everyone is reading all the different exams using more or less the same scoring standards.

How many tests are we talking about? Ready? This year, there were over 178,600 exams submitted by that many high school students. Of course, the number of essays graded is actually twice that daunting number because each exam has two essay questions. For the obvious practical reasons, there are two teams of readers; across the week-long event, approximately half of the teachers read essay one and the same number tackle essay two. The two essays account for about 1/3 of the exam--the remaining questions are objective (i.e., multiple choice), machine-scored items that make up the other 2/3.

I know, I know, you're curious: Why, oh, why would anyone volunteer to spend a week in early June grading essays in a cavernous convention hall (yes, that's the space big enough to hold AP Psychology readers as well as those from some of the other AP exams) in the mid-west? The semester and school year just ended-why take on more work? The compensation-yes, there is some-is quite modest for the time and travel. I think there are several reasons. First, readers care a great deal about how the discipline is taught to and understood by high school students. For some students, this may be their one and only exposure, so it should be a good one, and having their exams graded conscientiously is part of that. Second, AP credit is often given for high test scores. That credit often translates into college credit (a student may place out of introductory psychology, for example), so quality control is an important concern for everyone concerned, the students, their parents, and their post-secondary institutions.

But I believe the main reason is a rather simple one--it may sound a tad Pollyanna-ish, but taking part in the grading is a form of giving back. Giving back to our students, giving back to our profession, and acknowledging the importance of creating a good foundation for learning psychology begins in high schools. Readers also make connections, receive continuing education credit, and develop a wonderful sense of camaraderie, so much so that many come back year after year. What about more selfish reasons? I would be lying if I didn't also admit I have made many wonderful friends and professional contacts during my weeks at the AP Reading, just as I've developed an immense amount of respect for the teaching occurring in high schools.

Oh, you may have one last question: How long is the typical grading day? It starts at 8am and ends at 5pm. We get an hour for lunch and two 15 minute breaks (one mid-morning, the other mid-afternoon). The time is used well and most days it passes quickly (but boy, that last hour or so at the end of a reading day can be a bear).

Still, I received an email from the Educational Testing Service just this afternoon telling me when to expect an invitation for next year's reading. I can't wait. And for the psychology teachers out there, keep in mind that new readers are always welcome-considering taking the plunge.

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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