March 18th, 2015

Using Cumulative Exams to Help Students Revisit, Review, and Retain Course Content


The evidence that students retain content longer and can apply it better when exams and finals are cumulative is compelling. When I pointed to the evidence in a recent workshop, a faculty member responded, “But I can’t use cumulative exams. My students would revolt.” Students don’t like cumulative exams for the very reason we should be using them: they force regular, repeated encounters with the content. And it’s those multiple interactions with the material that move learning from memorization to understanding.

Another reason students object is that they don’t know how to study for long-term retention, but there are things we can do to help. With regular, short review activities in class or online we can encourage them to regularly reconnect with content covered previously. Here are some examples.

Use previous or potential test questions.

  • Display a question at the beginning of the session. “Here’s a test question I’ve asked previously about cognitive dissonance. How would you answer it?” Then give them time to talk with each other. Have them look in their notes. It’s a great way to get students to discover whether they have any helpful material in their notes that relates to the question. Furthermore, test questions keep students engaged and attentive until they’re answered, especially if several possible answers are proposed and discussed.
  • As a wrap-up exercise, have students create a possible test question. “This material on self-efficacy is fair game for the exam. What might a test question about it ask? How about jotting down some ideas.” Then ask several students to propose possible questions and identify those that are good. With a bit of editorial polish, create a question from one of their suggestions use it at the beginning or end of a session the following week. And, if one those student suggested questions ends up on the test, that pretty much guarantees that students will take this activity seriously.
  • Let students propose potential test questions. Encourage students to submit possible test questions. Those that are good get posted (without the answer) and the author gets a bonus point. Maybe one or two of those show up on the exam. Getting students involved in creating test questions makes them think about questions, not just answers and this student-generated test bank can be used for review across the course.

Regularly, in every class or whenever you’re online with a class, make a habit of asking questions about previous material. A few guidelines to this approach:

  • Resolutely refuse to answer the questions yourself. That’s exactly what students want you to do.
  • Ignore their looks of confusion and claims that they don’t have a clue.
  • Give them a hint. “We talked about mindset when we were talking about motivation. Check your notes for October 20. You might find the answer there.”
  • Be patient. It takes time to retrieve what you’ve just learned and barely understand.
  • Still no response? Tell them, that’s the question you’ll start with next session and if they don’t have an answer then, that’s a potential exam question for sure.

Have students do short reviews of previous material. There are lots of good times to do this—at the beginning of class, in the middle when they might need a break, or as a way to end the session.

  • On April 2 say, “Let’s all look at our notes from March 3. You’ve got two minutes to underline three things in your notes that you’re going to need to review for the exam.” Let them share underlines with someone nearby and then facilitate a short class discussion. This confronts students who don’t have notes for the day with the fact they may need some.
  • Late in November say, “Take three minutes to review your notes from November 1. Do you have anything in those notes that doesn’t make sense to you now?” Encourage other students to respond to what others have identified. “Help Shandra out. What do you the rest of you have in your notes about this?” Conclude by encouraging them to write more in their notes if they need to.
  • Or try this, “Your friend Leo wasn’t in class last Tuesday. He texts, asking what happened in class. Text Leo a short answer and don’t tell him ‘nothing’.”

If students are regularly encountering previous content in the course, that makes studying for cumulative exams easier. It also highlights relationships and coherence between content chunks.

Now it’s your turn. What techniques do you use to help students revisit and review content on a regular basis? Please share in the comment box.