2/2/2022–I can’t remember any answer I ever got correct on any test. But I remember every one I got wrong.

It proves the lesson I read in a fortune cookie: “People learn little from success, but much from failure.”

I’ll bet you can remember your own wrong answers. Here are three of mine I still recall from the last century:

When I transferred from a country school to a city school in 4th grade, the test of basic skills had a section on research. The question that stumped me asked when I would use an almanac versus an atlas. I had never heard those words, and our small-town elementary probably did not even have either reference in the basement library. I still remember the sense of panic that question created in my 9-year-old world. I was not used to not knowing.

In 8th grade science a pop quiz asked, “What is the color of waves at the short end of the electromagnetic spectrum?”

I wrote “red,” but since my handwriting was awful, I separated the curved part of the lower-case letter “d” from the stem, and it came out looking like “real.”

I howled and argued with the teacher that “real” was not a color, but he took great glee in denying my appeal in front of a class that reveled in my comeuppance. I’ve never forgotten, Mr. Olsen.

Then in high school physics we had a question asking if you were twirling a rock on a string around your head and let go, what path would the rock travel. For some reason I thought it would follow a slightly curved path. Looking back, I kind of understand how I missed the correct answer that it would continue in a straight line in the direction it was following when released. I was thinking about orbital mechanics, where a satellite in orbit would be under the influence of the planet’s gravity and follow a curved path.

Unfortunately, my body didn’t have enough gravity to make that true. Nor did my brain, apparently.

As you can see by my painfully detailed descriptions, even decades later it still bothers me that I got those answers wrong. (As an aside, I’d wager today’s students don’t know what atlases or almanacs are, either.)

But I understand how taking tests frightens some students. As a teacher it pained me when students froze up on test day. I tried to relieve their pressure by telling them to think of it as a game or puzzle. We don’t panic when solving mazes on paper placemats at iHop. Think of a quiz as another maze. Have fun with it. Help that bear find the honey.

I also taught them to think of the dreaded essay test as solving a mystery. You simply need to crack the code.

As a student, I learned early on that teachers liked to see structure. Start with a thesis, listing your points. Address each point in a paragraph (with a subject sentence), then wrap it all up with a conclusion.

The content didn’t really matter. You could go off in any direction you were most comfortable. If you couldn’t recall the chief exports of Peru, you could write about the contrast in climate on both sides of the Andes. It didn’t matter if you got a few details wrong–no teacher is going to read every word of 47 essays. They looked for the structure, and if you managed to write the first three paragraphs smoothly, they skipped to the end.

I know this is true, because I graded a lot of those essays.

Come to think of it, those early failures had another benefit: they helped me write these columns.