How can we get students to learn more from tests?


By Annie Soisson, Associate Director, CELT

The Large Lecture Consortium, a group of Tufts faculty who teach large enrollment courses, meets regularly to discuss effective teaching strategies. The group read Mary Ellen Weimer’s Make Exams about Learning and discussed strategies that they have used or would like to try. We have added a few more ideas to their list to share with you.

1. Designing Exams

  • Have students submit questions throughout the semester. Remember that students tend to submit questions from the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, so try different strategies to elicit higher level questions.
  • Consider having students work in groups to identify good questions.  Or have them write and submit a question related to the most difficult topic covered at each class period. This practice reinforces material, and encourages students to think in a different way.
  • Consider using a Table of Specifications when developing an exam to determine whether you are assessing multiple levels of learning. 
  • Feedback is essential for learning, so be sure to have early feedback and some of the weight of the grade distributed across the semester.

2. Helping Students Prepare for Exams

  • Remind students that the final is cumulative so it is good to review previous exams to prepare.
  • Have students work together to create Study Guides.
  • Ensure that learning objectives are tied to exams.
  • Make sure students have opportunities during class time to get to know each other so they can find peers to study with.
  • Offer sample questions and old exams so that students understand your expectations. Read about test-enhanced learning.
  • Read this post from Tufts Now called Practice testing protects memory against stress, highlighting Professor Ayanna Thomas’ research (from the Psychology Department at Tufts University).
  • Consider using Piazza or another online forum to give answers to frequently asked questions.  
  • Throughout the semester, give students a question in class, and ask them to respond individually first. Then ask them to form small groups or pairs to compare answers, and then respond again. This can be done low-tech, by holding up index cards, or by using Learning Catalytics or another classroom response system.
  • Suggest to students – “Don’t highlight and reread, instead generate questions you imagine will be on the exam and respond to them.”

3. Strategies to Suggest to Students for Taking Exams

  • Study with friends. “Look to left/ look to right / these are your study friends.”
  • Answer the easiest questions first!
  • Take a moment before the exam, and have students close their eyes and breathe for one minute to release stress.

4. Grading Exams

  • Take half the points they didn’t get at midterm and add the possible points to the final, essentially re-weighting the final. It is always in their favor. This is related to the idea of “not yet” – they didn’t have it at the midterm, so it leaves open the opportunity of having grasped it by the final.
  • Allow students to resubmit error corrections to gain back some points.

5. Reviewing Exams

  • Debrief exams with a focus on the most frequently missed questions. 
  • Consider using “Exam Wrappers ” Exam wrappers ask students three kinds of questions: How did they prepare for the exam?  What kinds of errors did they make on the exam?  What could they do differently next time? Read Design Considerations for Exam Wrappers.
  • Students often come to ask questions about exam grades. To avoid having to answer the same questions one of the faculty members in the large lecture consortium made a video on how to study. Students are encouraged to review the video before coming to see the professor.
  • Read: Getting More out of Exam Debriefs.

Image: CC0 (Free in Public Domain By) Flickr