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I finished passing back the linear algebra tests that I had graded to my students. “Check the tests over,” I told them. “Check to make sure the points I gave you add up to the score that I gave you. Let me know if you have any questions, or if there is anything that you disagree with.”

David raised his hand. “You really want us to talk to you about our test?”

“Yes,” I replied. “If you want to. I finished grading these at about midnight last night because I always try to get them back within one class period, if I possibly can. But with forty of you, I was quite brain dead when I finished, and I might have made mistakes.”

“What if we find some grading we disagree with?” he asked.

“Then you definitely should come talk to me about it. If you can show me something I missed, or if you can make a case for how you understood the problem differently from what I thought, then I may give you some more points. I also may disagree with you, but even if I do, I feel it is your right to come visit about it.”

David seemed surprised by this, and he stood off to the side as three students formed in a line to visit with me after class. For one student I had added the points wrong. He received one more point. For another, I hadn’t seen where his work continued onto the back of a page. He earned two more points. The third thought something was correct, but it wasn’t, so his grade didn’t change.

David waited patiently until all of the others were done, then he approached me. “You actually did mean we could talk to you if we had problems with the test, didn’t you?”

“Of course,” I replied. “Why does that surprise you?”

“My math teacher in high school wouldn’t let us talk about the test, ask questions, or anything, even after it was all graded.”

“I feel a test is a good way to learn,” I replied. “A person often learns more from their mistakes than from their successes.”

“Our high school teacher didn’t believe that,” David said. “We were hardly allowed to breathe while taking a test, and we were never allowed to question the results or ever ask questions about it, even when it was completed. That is why, one day, something interesting happened.”

“What was that?” I asked.

“Our teacher passed out the test we were taking, and as usual, set them upside down on our desks. We were not allowed to say anything from the minute he started passing them out. We all sat there quietly until everyone had one. Then, at the given signal, we turned our tests over.

“On this particular day, after we turned our tests over, I looked at mine and then raised my hand. The teacher yelled at me. ‘David, what did I tell you? I told you that you were not to speak, to raise your hand, to ask questions, or anything from the minute I started passing out the test, didn’t I?’ He continued to yell at me for about five minutes, and when I tried to say anything, he just got madder and yelled louder. Finally, he yelled, ‘Just do your test and we will talk afterward!’ so that’s what I did.”

“What was your question?” I asked.

“That’s the interesting part,” David replied. “It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. When everyone had completed their tests, and our teacher had gathered them, he then turned to me and angrily asked, ‘So, David, what was it that was so important that made you think you didn’t have to follow a few simple rules?’”

David then grinned as he finished the story. “I told him, ‘The test you put on my desk was the answer key.’”