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.

  • New Faculty Majority

    These are wonderful strategies, but are virtually impossible for the more than 50% so-called "part-time" faculty on college and university campuses to implement, since they are generally not provided offices or paid for office hours at which to do review sessions or this extremely valuable one-on-one consultation, not paid for the prep time necessary to create new exams on a regular basis, and not paid for the professional development that could help them learn about terrific techniques such as these. This is a perfect example of how faculty working conditions directly affect student learning and why the current system of contingent faculty hiring is so harmful to students and faculty alike.

    Join us at to make higher education about student learning again.

    Maria Maisto
    President, New Faculty Majority
    ED, NFM Foundation

  • Lisa M Lane

    I have seen this sort of thing done in class while groups worked on larger, end-of-semester projects together.

  • Hello Dr. Weimer:

    I appreciate your informative perspective of exams.

    There was one sentence that caught my attention: “Smith’s exam questions require an answer with justification.”

    For my on-ground classes I tend to avoid multiple choice questions because I don’t want the exam to be about what they have memorized. I’m more interested in what they have learned. I prefer to use fill-in-the-blank questions and short answers. This allows me to follow their thought process and demonstrate learning instead of memorization. I realize that is drawing a fine line; however, my hope is that I can encourage them to move through higher levels of cognition.

    I also agree with the comment posted about the practicality of these suggestions as I’m an adjunct instructor and would not have the time allocated to spend with students, one-on-one. I do provide individualized feedback reports.

    What is your experience with exams and what do you prefer?
    Dr. J

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  • So 25 students by 15 minutes is 6 hours of feedback? That is an awful lot. Or is it? Students each spend 2-3 hours in an exam so the students spent collectively 50-75 hours. The average academic spends (let's say) conservatively 35 hours per week working at a minimum. I dont see it as that much work for a small class size… Perhaps the feedback could be given a different way to alleviate 15 minute meetings? Perhaps online? Or perhaps this should only be used for some types of courses? Personally I see the exam as the present educational black hole in some courses. A definate motivator, yes, and a definate tool for lower order blooms skills (especially when MC used innapropriately or poorly) and possibly also for higher order thinking if designed correctly (as per Dr. Weimer comment).

  • Clifton Franklund

    I think that most of the value of giving lecture exams is in the formative assessment that they provide to the students. My classes are too large to sit and individually provide this feedback (about 200 science students per semester total). Instead, I have my computer do it for me. I rely primarily on multiple-choice questions so that I can adequately sample the students' knowledge. However, the questions are crafted to assess Bloom's taxonomy up to the levels of application and analysis. Synthesizing and creating are handled in the lab. If you want to see an example of the type of feedback that I provide, check out this link…
    Hopefully, this site won't strip out the URL… Each student gets an individualized report like this emailed to them shortly after the exam has been administered (usually within one hour). Rapid, specific, and encouraging feedback is essential to keep the students motivated and actively engaged in their own learning. IMHO.

    • Dr. Moheb Youssef

      Thank you for the excellent feedback. I would like to have your permission to use this template or if you would kindly direct me to the software vendor to settle any monetary cost. Thank you.

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  • Servaas de Kock

    Thank you for the interesting comments.
    I would love to hear from you or fellow members if you know of research or studies that were done on the assessment of students with regards to the length of examinations – being it three hours to complete an exam paper of 100 marks or 70 marks and two hours to complete it.

    What I wanted to know is if shorter examinations of 70 marks are better than longer ones of 100 marks or the reverse? Do you have any view or knowledge that can proof this?

    The total assessment of the specific subject or course is a weighting of 30/70. The assignments have a 30% weighting and the exam 70%.

    I am really looking forward to hear from you.

    Best Regards,

    Servaas de Kock

    Cape Town

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