"I'm returning your tests, but don't look at them yet. Keep working on today's assignment."
I've heard many teachers, including me, make requests like this, and then return students' tests--face down, of course. Yet rather than comply, students compare or complain. Compare scores: "I got an 85. What did you get?" And compare answers, which is when the complaining begins: "Coach G, how come you took points off for me on #7? I had the same thing as Justin and he got credit. That's not fair!"
So much for students working on today's assignment--and good luck getting them to refocus on it. But who can blame them? It's human nature to check the results of something important to you the moment they're available. (Sports fans, how long can you resist checking how your team is doing?) There's no way around it: pass back a test--or any graded activity, for that matter--and students are going to drop everything to see how they did, talk to each other about how they did, and confront you on how they did.
So, when should you return tests, quizzes, or other graded papers? Depends. Sometimes it's better to do it early in the class period--after a Do Now or other opening activity--especially if you think students will have trouble concentrating until they see their papers. Other times it may be less distracting or disruptive if you do it toward the end of class. What matters most is that you return graded papers when you're willing to let students give those papers their undivided attention, since that's what they're going to do anyway.
I'm all for efficiency in the classroom, so it's great if you can sneak in an administrative task while students are doing something that requires little or no supervision. But returning tests to students is one task where efficiency can lead to inefficiency.
Image by GECC, with permission
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