The evidence that students retain content longer and can apply it better when exams and finals are cumulative is compelling. When I pointed to the evidence in a recent workshop, a faculty member responded, “But I can’t use cumulative exams. My students would revolt.” Students don’t like cumulative exams for the very reason we should be using them: they force regular, repeated encounters with the content. And it’s those multiple interactions with the material that move learning from memorization to understanding.
There are a couple of reasons why students don’t like comprehensive finals. First, they’re more work. Rather than four weeks’ worth of material to know and understand, there’s a semester or term’s worth of content to deal with. However, the research highlighted in an article in this issue of the newsletter and more like it strongly supports that continued interaction with the content increases the chances that it will be remembered and can be used subsequently. Students also don’t like comprehensive exams because most of them don’t use good cross-course study strategies. They wait until finals week and then they start reviewing. Here are some ways teachers can help students develop and use study strategies that make preparing for and doing well on comprehensive finals easier.
We give students exams for two reasons: First, we have a professional responsibility to verify their mastery of the material. Second, we give exams because they promote learning. Unfortunately, too often the first reason overshadows the second. We tend to take learning outcomes for granted. We assume the learning happens, almost automatically, provided the student studies. But what if we considered how, as designers of exam experiences, we might maximize their inherent potential? Would any of these possibilities make for more and better learning from the exams your students take?
Terence Favero begins where many teachers are with respect to review sessions. Students request them. Teachers don’t like to give up class time to essentially go over material they’ve already covered. It’s difficult to find a time that works for everyone—students don’t want to come in early, and professors don’t want to review at bedtime. Then there’s the issue of who shows up for the review session. Usually, it’s not the students who most need to be there. And finally, there’s how review sessions are generally structured. Students ask questions, which the professor answers, while the students take notes. Favero notes, “Rarely does this approach lead to deep learning or prepare students for an exam.” (p. 247)
Most faculty are familiar with the strategy: students are allowed to bring into the exam a card or sheet of paper that they’ve prepared beforehand and that contains information they think might help them answer exam questions. I became convinced of the strategy’s value when my husband was an undergraduate. He and his engineering study buddies convened at our place the night before an exam to decide what they should put on the 4 x 6 note card they were allowed to take into a mechanical engineering course. They spent hours in heated discussion. They thought they were just figuring out what went on the card, but in fact they were sorting out, prioritizing, organizing, and integrating the content of the course. Their discussion accomplished that way more effectively than any review session I had conducted. Of course, being engineers, they decided on what they needed and then reduced the size so that when they got it on the card they needed a magnifying glass to read it.
Are your students too answer oriented? Are they pretty much convinced that there’s a right answer to every question asked in class? When preparing for exams, do they focus on memorizing answers, often without thinking about the questions?
To cultivate interest in questions, consider having students write exam questions. Could this be a way to help teachers generate new test questions? Don’t count on it. Writing good test questions — ones that make students think, ones that really ascertain whether they understand the material — is hard work. Given that many students are not particularly strong writers to begin with, they won’t write good test questions automatically. In fact, you probably shouldn’t try the strategy if you aren’t willing to devote some time to developing test writing skills.
We give exams to assess mastery of material—are students learning the course content? With so much emphasis on scores and grades, it’s easy to forget that the process of preparing for, taking, and getting feedback about an exam can also be a learning experience. The learning that results from these processes can be tacit, or teachers can design activities associated with exam events that can result in better content learning and heightened student awareness of the learning skills associated with demonstrating knowledge. The good news is that these activities don’t have to be all that creative and innovative, as Thomas Smith discovered.
Here’s a strategy that helps students look at more than the grade when an exam is returned. An exam wrapper (I like the name) is a handout attached to the exam that students complete as part of the exam debrief process. The wrapper directs students “to review and analyze their performance (and the instructor’s feedback)