HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
When an exam approaches, virtually all students agree they need to study and most will, albeit with varying intensity. Most will study the same way they always have—using the strategies they think work. The question students won’t ask is: How should I study for this exam? They don’t recognize that what they need to learn can and should be studied in different ways.
To: My Students
From: Your Professor
Re: Studying for Finals
The end of the semester is rarely pretty. You’re tired; I’m tired. You’ve got a zillion things to get done—ditto for me. You’ve also got grades hanging in the balance to be decided by how you perform on the final exam. The pressure is on, and it’s not just this course. It’s all of them.
There hasn’t been a lot written recently about test anxiety, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer an issue for a significant number of students. Those of us who don’t suffer from test anxiety—and I’m betting that’s most faculty—can find it hard to be sympathetic. Life is full of tests, and students need to get over it. Besides, if students have studied and prepared, there’s no reason for them to feel excessively anxious about a test.
There are a couple of reasons why students don’t like comprehensive finals. First, they’re more work. Rather than four weeks’ worth of material to know and understand, there’s a semester or term’s worth of content to deal with. However, the research highlighted in an article in this issue of the newsletter and more like it strongly supports that continued interaction with the content increases the chances that it will be remembered and can be used subsequently. Students also don’t like comprehensive exams because most of them don’t use good cross-course study strategies. They wait until finals week and then they start reviewing. Here are some ways teachers can help students develop and use study strategies that make preparing for and doing well on comprehensive finals easier.
We give students exams for two reasons: First, we have a professional responsibility to verify their mastery of the material. Second, we give exams because they promote learning. Unfortunately, too often the first reason overshadows the second. We tend to take learning outcomes for granted. We assume the learning happens, almost automatically, provided the student studies. But what if we considered how, as designers of exam experiences, we might maximize their inherent potential? Would any of these possibilities make for more and better learning from the exams your students take?
Terence Favero begins where many teachers are with respect to review sessions. Students request them. Teachers don’t like to give up class time to essentially go over material they’ve already covered. It’s difficult to find a time that works for everyone—students don’t want to come in early, and professors don’t want to review at bedtime. Then there’s the issue of who shows up for the review session. Usually, it’s not the students who most need to be there. And finally, there’s how review sessions are generally structured. Students ask questions, which the professor answers, while the students take notes. Favero notes, “Rarely does this approach lead to deep learning or prepare students for an exam.” (p. 247)
We give exams to assess mastery of material—are students learning the course content? With so much emphasis on scores and grades, it’s easy to forget that the process of preparing for, taking, and getting feedback about an exam can also be a learning experience. The learning that results from these processes can be tacit, or teachers can design activities associated with exam events that can result in better content learning and heightened student awareness of the learning skills associated with demonstrating knowledge. The good news is that these activities don’t have to be all that creative and innovative, as Thomas Smith discovered.