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

  • Howard Shapiro

    I give a brief questionnaire after the first test that asks four questions: What did you do that helped you be successful on this test? What could you have done differently to be more successful on this test? What did I do that helped you be successful on this test? What could I have done differently for you to be more successful on this test. I compile all the answers and provide them back to the class and we have a class discussion. In years of doing this, the data are compelling that the students for the most part take responsibility for their performance. They rarely blame others and realize that they need to work harder. But, I do get good suggestions about things I could do differently and I implement them.

  • Prof.AVjr.

    I practically do the same for the prep on the next exam, I called self-evaluation is that if you are doing just fine for this first test keep doing it for the rest of the exams, on the other hand, if you did not do well in this exam I expect better results on the second Exams. Allowing them to see failure as a make-up approach a life decisions concerning growth and learning potential.

  • Phil Beauchamp

    I teach chemistry (mostly organic, but occasionally freshman chem). In the 1980s I asked exactly the same 4 questions as in the comment above at the end of the quarters. In one of those quarters I tabulated the comments with the grades the students received (no names) and attached them to my course syllabus for each course. As stated above, students took responsibility for their grades, both good and bad, and made similar recommendations that I was promoting. I did not see any appreciable change in course gpa's. I did this for many years, but dropped them when I was trying to shorten my syllabi.

    Also, in the 1980s I started a regrade policy of midterm exams (it doesn't work on the final). I had a particularly low average score (37% as I recall) and was trying to think of a way to motivate the students to really look at the material. I put a key at the campus copy center and told the students I would give them the exact same exam in one week. I did not tell anyone because I did not want the other profs to think I was giving away grades (I was a little embarrassed). I fully expected the exam average be in the 90s. I was shocked to find that the new average was only about 63%. I discovered that there is almost no way you can be too explicit about what will be covered on the exam. Now I post blank copies of my prior midterms and final exams on my web page. I also send a blank exam and a key of the midterm and final exam from the previous time I taught a particular course to the copy center. This only seems fair because I give back my exams and some students have friends who took me before and have access to those keys. I also pass out the cover page to each exam (lists type of problem and point values) about a week before the exam. I also give a 2 hour study session two days before every exam where I go over one of the exams that does not have a key. I work through answers and provide strategy hints for how to approach each problem. One would think that all of this opportunity would produce very high averages on the exams, but that is not the case. The exam averages still run in the 45-65% range. My suspicion is that students' lives are busy and procrastination is the norm. With access to the exams, students feel that they can cram in the material at the last minute, even though I tell them that is a recipe for failure in every single lecture. It's hard to change human nature.

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  • I have been doing something similar for many years for my first year biology courses: http://aug.ualberta.ca/SuccessfulPractices
    It was developed based upon a couple of resources:

    Pawluk S. 1994. Giving that little extra help. The Teaching Professor 8(8):4
    Gardner JN, Jewler AJ. 1989. College is only the beginning (2nd ed.). Belmont (CA): Wadsworth.

    I do like how Felder's memo is crafted as an invitation.

  • Bethany

    Indeed, the first examination is often comparable to a bomb, just because emotions can reach the highest threshold, but it is good to know how to manage this difficult situation. I was just having finished the session, and I can say that I am very pleased with my results.