January 27th, 2016

Five Ways to Improve Exam Review Sessions

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students in exam review session

Here are two frequently asked questions about exam review sessions: (1) Is it worth devoting class time to review, and (2) How do you get students, rather than the teacher, doing the reviewing? Instead of answering those questions directly, I decided a more helpful response might be a set of activities that can make exam review sessions more effective.

Teaching Professor Blog 1. What’s going to be on the test? Students take two or three minutes to look over their notes and maybe skim the text, and then they jot down five things (maybe a few more or less) they are confident will be on the exam. They then form groups of three to five students, and each group constructs an agreed-upon list to give to the teacher. The teacher combines the group submissions to create a list for the class, and the list is made available to students in advance of the exam. During the exam debrief, the list is retrieved so students can see the items on the list that were also on the test. The teacher can almost always make this point: with a bit of classmate collaboration, you can come up with a pretty good answer to the question of what’s going to be on the test.

2. What will the test questions be like? Again in small groups, students are assigned a different section of the text, notes from a lecture, or specific topics, and they are charged with writing a designated number of test questions. Note: writing good test questions of any kind isn’t easy, so don’t expect perfection. Offering some guidelines for the type of questions that will be on the exam is helpful. Compile the student-generated questions, maybe add a few of your questions, and use them during the second half of the period. Let students work on the questions in their groups, which you can then score and maybe give members in the group with the highest score a few bonus points. Debrief the activity with some feedback on the student-generated questions. Too easy? Unclear? Unimportant content?

3. What content would be helpful in answering test questions? Individually or in groups, students review material (or you can assign groups a designated content chunk) and create a crib sheet. These crib sheets—whether a single sheet, half sheet, or index card—should contain material students would like to be able to use during the exam. This content does not answer potential questions but is the material needed to construct answers. Students could use the crib sheets during all or part of the exam; you decide. If you have them turn in their sheets, you can return them attached to the exam. An alternative review session could have you distributing group crib sheets for students to evaluate and in the process clarifying what answers they will need to know for the exam.

4. What makes an answer good? Use a short answer or essay question with relevant exam content, and then construct or use from a previous exam three answers at different quality levels. Avoid both awful and superstar answers. Students grade the answers individually first; then they evaluate them as a group, focusing on what differentiates them, both with the goal of concretely identifying features of a good answer. Follow up with a new question (maybe a different one for each group), and task them with identifying the content needed to construct a good answer. Share with the whole class what each group produces.

5. How should I be studying for the exam? Students tend to be pretty generic in their thinking about study strategies. “I’ll go over my notes” and “I’ll reread what I’ve highlighted in the text.” If your students don’t have stellar study skills, a list of possible study strategies might be helpful in guiding this discussion in small groups or with the whole class. Recommend what research in cognitive psychology has shown promotes learning and test performance: studying for shorter periods across several days, testing knowledge with questions (those in the book, provided by the teacher, or made up on their own), working on different types of problems, reviewing with a study buddy, and reworking (not recopying) class notes. Encourage students to develop a study plan and to try one or several study strategies they haven’t used before. Later, during the exam debrief, have a follow-up discussion. What strategies did they try? What worked? What didn’t? Let the class develop a set of recommended study strategies that could be shared in subsequent courses.

Now it’s your turn. Please add your favorite exam review activities to this collection.

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  • Steve Markoff

    I do not provide any formal "exam review sessions". My exams are all comprehensive. I utilize the Socratic Method of instruction with "review" activities happening during all sessions in the form of questions. I do provide a topical outline for each midterm exam, but this too, is in the form of questions.

    The only exception is the final exam where, we spend the entire class period reviewing a custom problem designed to cover aspects from all parts of the course. As always, students are fully prepared with this material prior to the session, and it too is covered in Socratic fashion. This helps students isolate areas in which to do more pre-exam review.

  • Marcia Weinstein

    Another excellent study strategy is "Interleaving" = alternate studying one content area (such as Psychology) with another, different kind of content (such as Anatomy and Physiology).

  • Kathleen Hagen

    I really love the idea of encouraging students to try a different study strategy and see how it works for them, but in return, faculty have to adjust the kinds and number of exams given during the course. If the only exams are a midterm and a final, the assessments are too high stakes for a student to dare risking a new and potentially unsuccessful study strategy.

  • T. Gregory Barrett

    Exam reviews? What is this? High School?

    • Dr. G

      Exactly. You're in college now; grow up.

  • Jeanette Landin

    I like to give a test preparation worksheet to my 1000-level classes to help them learn what is involved in preparing for an exam. I include different elements on the worksheet and incorporate different types of active reading skills i.e., predictors, personal connections, key words, etc.) to guide them. I also have students do a written summary in their own words about the content of the section with the idea that being able to put the ideas into your own words makes the content “yours.”

  • Encourage students to form study groups.

    Test student understanding using clickers or classroom response systems or other formative assessment activities in class.

    Offer supplemental instruction, tutoring.

    Give students a test preparation checklist or self-assessment. Here's one example: http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder

    You can change the exam itself to help ensure that even if students do poorly, they'll better understand why they did poorly and not fall further and further behind on future exams. For example by using exam wrappers or two stage exams: https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/exhttps://blogs.ubc.ca/eoassei/two-stage-exams/

  • Niladri Mantena

    Please add this important section related to Math, Science, Engineering and Technology classes:
    Provide a list of equations and formulas that will be used on the test/exam on the left side of the sheet
    and the meaning of each variable (parameter) plus the units used on the right side. This would help students big.

  • Guest

    I give a lab practicum in the middle and at the end of each semester in my Biology courses, and the students often enter them not knowing what to expect since they never took an assessment of this kind in high school. Last semester, I offered review sessions outside of lab and class time. Each consisted of a short mock practicum, which covered each of the lab activities we had completed, and we reviewed the mock practicum at the end. The students then knew what to expect as far as format went, and we talked what topics they needed to focus on based on how they did at each of the practicum stations. I also gave them a handout offering advice on what they should focus if they got station 1, 2, 3, etc. wrong. The students who attended really seemed to appreciate it, and many of them did well on the actual practicum!

  • Nicky Didicher

    I teach literature classes, and one of my exam review strategies is to make a large one-page chart with the texts from the course down one side and different elements of analysis we've done along the top (e.g. gender ideology, narrative structure, historical context, applying critical theory). The bottom row is for conclusions and observations of overall patterns. I give them the chart as a handout and have them in pairs filling in some key words in each box in a column or two in class, encouraging them to get something thoughtful into the bottom box. I collect a few pairs' conclusions/observations, and encourage students to fill in the rest of the chart at home.

  • Dr. G

    After a decade of doing special "review sessions" outside of class or during class, I decided to stop doing these altogether (and, by the way, it did not make a big difference on exam performance). At first I had hoped these sessions would be like the ones from when I was a student — a study group where we quiz and grill each other on the material. Instead they turned out to be more like press conferences, with reporters trying to get the scoop on what specifically will be on the exam. In the end the only relevant question was: If you've been having so much trouble with the material, why have you not come to me for help? So instead of review sessions, I've been stressing the value and availability of my consulting/office hours.