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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.

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:


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.

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.