January 28th, 2015

First Exam of the Semester: A Wake-up Call for Students


This weekend I discovered a “memo to students who are disappointed with their last test grade.” What a great idea! I wasn’t surprised when I found out it was more of Rich Felder’s good work.

Students are terribly optimistic about their grades, especially at the beginning of a course. Then comes the first exam, many of us giving it early on in an attempt to dislodge these convictions that success will come easily and with little or no effort. If we return the exams during class, disappointment hangs heavy in the air. In those moments of despair there’s an opportunity to confront students with what they might have done (or not done) that caused (or is at least related to) that disappointing score.

Felder is an engineer so his short, friendly memo precedes a checklist of questions about how students are doing the homework and what they did to prepare for the test. They answer each question yes or no. The instructions say, “Answer ‘yes’ only if you usually did the things (as opposed to occasionally or never).” At the end of the checklist students are advised, “If you recorded two or more ‘No’ responses, think seriously about making some changes in how you prepare for the next test.”

As with any good instructional idea, it’s not about precise replication but taking the idea and making it your own. In this case, the first and probably easiest adaptation is revision of the questions on the checklist. But having a checklist isn’t a requirement. You could attach to the memo some study suggestions collected from former students who’ve done well on your tests.

In Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, I wrote about a physics professor who, before the first test, gave students a set of study suggestions offered by students who had done well in the course the previous semester. Student response to that handout was amazing. It looked rather like Moses had just delivered the Ten Commandments. Ironically, but not surprising, the advice from former students echoed things professors say all the time, but when those recommendations came from somebody who had aced the exams, they took on a whole new level of credibility.

A memo like this gives teachers the chance to communicate a variety of messages. Felder points out the value of working with other students, not to copy solutions but to compare and discuss them. Students need reminders that ongoing study garners far better results than cramming. If they don’t believe you they should try it. They also need to hear that effort trumps natural ability—it’s much more about hard work than big brains. Perhaps a review of available resources is in order—office hours, the learning center, and the additional textbook materials accessible online. Maybe you could have students suggest activities that might better support their efforts to learn. Finally, you can use the memo to convey your concern, your commitment to helping students succeed, and your belief that exam scores will improve if students use appropriate study strategies.

Getting this information to the students who most need it requires some finesse. A teacher-generated list of study suggestions attached only to low-scoring tests is not going to be as effective as letting the disappointed students identify themselves. “If your test grade wasn’t as high as you expected, you might want to take a look at a memo I’ve posted on the course website. It’s addressed to students disappointed with their test score. Even if you got a high B but wanted an A, most of the study advice probably still applies.” Faculty also could print copies of the memo and make it available for students to pick up as they leave class, post it to their office door, or send it out in an email to the class. You get the drift.

Often we despair that students seemingly don’t listen or do what we tell them. Do we underestimate the importance of timing? Study advice before an exam can prevent disaster, but a disaster is what some students need to persuade them that success in the course isn’t automatic.

Felder, R.M. (1999). Memo to students who are disappointed with their last test grade. Chemical Engineering Education, 33(2), 136–137. www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Columns/memo.pdf