Don’t Let Learning End with the Exam

Use an Exam Wrapper to Promote Post-exam Learning

All too often, students take a midterm (or a final exam), check their scores, and then start forgetting the material. The class moves forward; students who haven’t yet mastered the important concepts rarely go back to identify their weaknesses, but end up building on increasingly shaky foundations.

Exam wrappers can help “interrupt the forgetting,” and ensure that students have a chance to learn from their errors. An exam wrapper is a metacognitive activity that students complete after an exam, a sort of exam “post mortem.” An exam wrapper exercise can help students to strengthen their knowledge foundation for the succeeding concepts that will build on it. It can also be a valuable opportunity to practice metacognitive skills. They take various forms, but the most fruitful wrappers ask students to do two things:

1. Review their test and examine the items they answered incorrectly. As they do so, students should be asked to determine the correct answer and be able to explain why it is the right response. They need to identify what major concepts they had trouble with, so they can go back and fill in the gaps in their learning.

2. Reflect on how they prepared for the exam. How much time did they invest? What did studying mean—reading the material, outlining, reviewing notes, answering practice questions? (Less successful students are often those who read over their notes repeatedly, rather than grappling with sample questions). If their strategies didn’t work, how do they plan to prepare differently next time? (Most students don’t have a repertoire of effective study habits, but you can point them toward guides like Dr. Chew’s.) Students should also look for patterns in their errors: did their mistakes reflect carelessness, miscalculations, or misreading the question?

If you can require students to complete the exam wrapper, they will benefit greatly from the opportunities for deeper learning. Some faculty don’t record the exam grade until the wrapper is completed; some use them as in-class assignments; some administer a second exam on the same material after a week or so, and average the two grades, or let students use the wrapper to earn back a limited number of points they missed on the exam. Some even give two-stage exams.

Ultimately, these wrappers get your students thinking about how they learn and how they might self-regulate more. This self-regulation is important for its own sake, as it improves their performance, but it’s also a key element of critical thinking.

If you’d like to think more about exam design, and whether your tests are giving you accurate evidence of student learning, please sign up for CAT’s two-part Exam Design Institute (November 7 and 14, from 2:00-4:00). To RSVP, email We look forward to working with you!