A Study-for-an-Exam Assignment

Students in library with lamps and reading books

This article first appeared in The Teaching Professor on March 21, 2017. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved. For more articles like this, check out a monthly or yearly subscription.

To remediate the exam preparation study skills that beginning (and other) students are missing, most of us respond by telling students about those skills that make for good exam performance. “Come to class.” “Take notes.” “Keep up with reading.” “See me during office hours if you need help.” And most of us have discovered that this approach isn’t particularly effective. It doesn’t always work well for two reasons. First, students tend not to listen all that closely to advice on how to study when it’s offered by people who sound and often look like their parents, and second, it’s not enough to know what they should be doing. Students need to work to develop and refine those skills.

Consider an approach that might succeed where how-to-study admonitions fail. It starts with a first-year seminar program. A first-year seminar provides a perfect structure for this assignment, but it could be used in a variety of courses. In this first-year seminar course students get the usual instruction on learning strategies, but more importantly they complete an assignment in the seminar called a Strategy Project Assignment. It’s a “multistep project requiring students to plan, monitor, and evaluate their newly learned strategies as they prepare for a test in a course in which they are currently enrolled.” (pp. 272-3)

A copy of the actual assignment appears in an appendix at the end of the open-access article referenced below. It includes students creating a study game plan, meeting with the instructor about the exam, using the reading review activities that have been covered in the course, using active note-taking strategies, implementing a choice of appropriate exam study strategies, taking the test, predicting the grade and then once the test is returned writing a paper the reflects on their exam preparation and performance. Evidence that all these activities were completed is required and they are evaluated to determine the overall assignment grade.

This is another of those “authentic assignments” where students do work that requires the application and use of course content. It relies on what’s called “deliberative practice.” “In order for a person to achieve mastery levels, practice of the skill in an authentic context is necessary.” (p. 272)

An analysis of the reflection papers students (in five seminar sections) wrote after the exam revealed five themes.

  1. The first and “perhaps most important” (p. 274) theme involved the value students placed on the assignment. This was after initial reactions that weren’t all that enthusiastic. “This project has to be the most eye-opening project of my entire semester,” one student wrote (p. 274)
  2. Second, students commented on the transition from high school to college and their vague expectations of what doing well in college required. They knew they were going to have to work harder. Even so, some felt confident. One admitted to feeling “cocky.” Other were fearful, convinced they were going to fail. Either way, their expectations tended to be inaccurate.
  3. Many students also wrote about their reluctance to change what had worked in high school. They didn’t want to use the strategies being proposed in the seminar. They didn’t think they would work. What they’d done in high school worked, why should they change? Rather than trying something new, some concluded they simply needed to do more of what worked in high school.
  4. But the new strategies the assignment forced them to use did work. Forty-five percent of the students reported a letter grade or higher increase on the test they prepared for in the project. Another 26% reported smaller improvement gains. The few that reported declines attributed them to personal circumstances, not the project.
  5. Perhaps more significant than grade gains were the changes in self-efficacy that resulted from the assignment. Another regular theme addressed how much more confident students felt about taking exams. They described feeling prepared and able to handle exam questions. And finally, many of the students reported that the assignment had caused them to make permanent changes in how they prepare for exams across the board.

An assignment like this is perfectly suited for a first-year seminar course, but as the author points out, it can be adapted for use in a variety of courses, most appropriately in those regularly taken by beginning students or in those courses where the approaches students tend to use are not the ones that result in good grades and successful learning. The assignment could also work well in those first courses in a major where students need to learn the ins and outs of studying a particular kind of content.

Reference: Steiner, H. H., (2016). The strategy project: Promoting self-regulated learning through an authentic assignmentInternational Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 28 (2), 271-282.