Test Prep: Getting Your Students to Examine Their Approach

I was inspired by Maryellen Weimer’s article on “Teaching Metacognition to Improve Student Learning” and the accompanying article by Kimberly Tanner on “Promoting Student Metacognition.”

Tanner reflected on a comment I have heard many times: “…it’s my job to teach [your discipline or learning outcome goes here], not study strategies.” How often have we heard that our students don’t know how to learn? Regardless of whose fault that is, Weimer’s article shows how relatively easy it is to incorporate practical “meta-learning” strategies into our lesson plans. It’s particularly straightforward for teachers who conduct a structured pre-test review class and a post-test follow-up activity because that is where many of the issues on clarity, confusion, and preparedness can be brought into the light.

I recall the first time I taught a math course (first and second semester courses) to first-year Trades and Technology students. They were from a diverse mix of age groups, work and school experiences, and cultural and family backgrounds, so variety was critical in everything I did. I was convinced I had used all the correct strategies leading up to the first test — conducting a short review, promptly marking and returning homework problem sets, and so on. Then I got the results. They were less than spectacular. Although motivation and commitment might have been part of the issue, I knew I had to evaluate, and perhaps change my methods.

One strategy that worked was to ask the students prior to the review session, a series of questions in class. This took place approximately one week before the first big test, for which there was observable anxiety.

  • How do you prepare for a test?
  • What do you do (or not do) the night before a test?
  • What has helped you in the past?
  • What should be avoided before a test?

The comments were insightful, sincere, and sometimes sobering and humorous. Some also gave me practical ideas on how I could revise my teaching strategies. I received more than 90 comments from the two classes, which I summarized and posted on my faculty webpage for other students to reflect upon. Here is a partial list of what the students said:

  • get a good night’s sleep before the test
  • review / board work
  • apply math to practical life
  • study in a quiet place
  • studying with classmates
  • actually do some practice problems on a daily basis
  • good attendance
  • address problems promptly before they snowball
  • find an isolated, quiet place with good lighting
  • repetition (out loud if necessary)
  • review practice problems
  • paying attention
  • mock test – or make one up yourself
  • don’t over study (brain overload)
  • get help
  • don’t wait until the night before
  • motivate yourself – buy yourself ice cream if you get over 80%
  • have a pre-test
  • cramming
  • not keeping up on work
  • over studying
  • worrying
  • skipping/missing class
  • being tired
  • not knowing info
  • not paying attention
  • staying up all night
  • not asking for help
  • not doing reviews
  • stressing out
  • poor attendance
  • not eating and sleeping properly
  • bad attitude
  • panic
  • falling behind
  • not being prepared
  • cramming before a test
  • teach someone else
  • getting help if you need it (tutor, teacher, on-line)
  • be prepared
  • do reviews
  • have correct tools (sharp pencil, eraser, ruler, calculator)
  • testing yourself (at home)
  • make time for studying
  • get stronger on questions before you move on
  • know your formulae
  • continuous review
  • put forward an effort to study on a daily basis
  • study with someone who knows what they are doing
  • more practice problems
  • have shorter and more frequent tests (less material per test) – this way, more content is fresh in the mind
  • more hands-on
  • relate concepts to real-life applications

The full, separate lists can be viewed by clicking on “How do Students Prepare for a Test?” at my former faculty webpage at: http://homepages.cambriancollege.ca/gbcooper/.

Based on my students’ comments, I was able to modify my teaching strategies to better meet their needs and learning preferences. Here’s a partial list of some of these changes:

relate concepts to real-life applications Asked other faculty in senior years of Trades programs for practical problem sets – response was overwhelming and I had plenty of real-life trades-related problem sets incorporating trigonometry and quadratic equations.
mock test – or make one up yourself The review prior to test now included a practice take-home “mock” test which was taken up in class, and peer or self -graded during the review class – this was well-received by my students.
motivate yourself – buy yourself ice cream if you get over 80% I didn’t buy them ice cream, but I used the age-old kindergarten reward technique – STICKERS! On marked homework and tests. I used my favorite horse and motorcycle-related ones I purchased from the dollar store. Everyone got one regardless of grade, but top grades got the jumbo metallic-reflective ones. Although it seemed a little juvenile, the one and only time I forgot to use them caused an uproar! I never forgot them again!
more practice problems I was already using the college’s LMS (Learning Management System) so it was relatively easy to make extra problem sets and solutions available to students online for afterhours access and practice.

While these are perhaps not very metacognitive-oriented results, I do believe the actual process of having my students think about and discuss with peers how to prepare for a test, what might work, as well as what might not, helped some of them re-think or define their “approach strategy” for the test.

For some, it worked well. (Or so they told me.) For others, it did not. And some of those admitted they just didn’t really prepare … or care. But that’s not a metacognition issue, that’s a matter of commitment — an entirely different issue.

Greg Cooper, M.A. Ed. is an Instructional Designer with the Teaching and Learning Centre (TLC) at the University of Calgary, Alberta. He previously worked at Cambrian College, Sudbury, Ontario for twenty-seven years as Professor and eLearning Designer.

Weimer, Maryellen (2012, October 31). Teaching Metacognition to Improve Student Learning. Faculty Focus, retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/teaching-metacognition-to-improve-student-learning/

Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 11 (Summer), 113-120.