March 20th, 2012

Making Exams More about Learning


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.

Smith decided to use five “tactical strategies” (p. 72) in his junior-level financial management class. First he gave students access to previous exams. He put two semesters’ worth of exams on reserve in the library. They were exam copies minus any answers. Part of this was a fairness issue. Greeks on his campus collected previous exams—it didn’t seem fair that non-Greek students had no access to those exams. More important, having access to the exams relieved a lot of anxiety students had over the format, style, and difficulty of the exam. The downside of this strategy is that it forces the instructor to write new questions every semester. That is easier in some content areas than in others.

Next, Smith conducted a review session prior to each exam. He scheduled the two-hour sessions the evening before the exam. Students could come and go at their leisure—between 80 and 90 percent of the students attended the session. The decision to schedule the session the night before the exam was based on the assumption that students would have already devoted time to study. Smith provided correct answers to the exam questions during the session. Most of the students had already tried to work the problems, and so they came with questions. “The review session provides a wonderful teaching opportunity in that students are very attentive. In other words, it is a prime learning opportunity.” (p. 74)
The sessions did not take place in the regular classroom, and Smith found that made for more open dialogue.

Students were allowed to use a cheat sheet during the exam.
Specifically, it was a 5×7 hand-written card. Most students filled their cards with definitions, formulas, and instructions for solving particular kinds of problems. Being able to use a cheat sheet got the message across to students: they didn’t need to memorize the material. Smith says that the stress-relieving effects of the cheat sheets were “one of the most gratifying unforeseen consequences.” (p. 76) Coupled with having access to prior exams, this allowed students to come to the exam much more focused on the material. Interestingly, Smith observed many of the students rarely looked at their cheat sheets. When they did, it was to quickly check something. The process of preparing the cheat sheet seemed to have helped students organize and remember the material.

Smith’s exam questions require an answer with justification. The exams contained 25 to 30 multiple-choice questions. Students selected the correct answer, but then they had to provide a written justification for their choice, and it was that written justification that was evaluated, not what the students had circled. The practice virtually eliminated guessing because students who had the correct answer marked but provided an erroneous or irrelevant justification could get only partial or no credit for the answer. Likewise, if an incorrect response was supported with a reasonable justification, it could earn partial or full credit.

And finally and most innovatively, Smith individually graded each exam with the student present. This took place in a 15-minute appointment scheduled during the week after the exam. The instructor and the student sat down together at a table and proceeded through the exam. The discussion was easy when the answer and justification were correct. The discussion was not as easy if the answer was correct but not the justification. Smith reported that he spent time listening carefully as students re-explained their thought processes. He learned much about students’ thinking processes and could more easily identify the problematic assumptions they had made. Clearly, this was a time-consuming process. Because he didn’t spend any class time talking about the exam, Smith canceled one class session and used the time for individual appointments. He used this technique in classes with 25 students.

Smith thinks the impact of each individual strategy is enhanced when all of them are used. “Each strategy is a cog in a larger system, and there are many interdependencies among the various tactics.” (p. 81) When Smith uses all five strategies, “the first noticeable systematic effect is that students are willing to work harder.” (p. 82) The strategies also help build trust between the instructor and students. It’s a way of using exams that makes students more accountable and lets them experience how much learning an exam can promote.

Reference: Smith, T. “Exams as learning experiences: One nutty idea after another.” In R. J. Mezeske and B. A. Mezeske, eds., Beyond Tests and Quizzes: Creative Assessments in the College Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 25.2 (2011): 5.