Learning From Exams

There’s Still Time to Recover From a Disappointing Exam

It’s an irony of human learning that the less we know the more confident we tend to be; as novices, we don’t yet know how much we don’t know (Nilson, 2013). Students may start a course feeling invincible—until they encounter the first exam. When they perform worse than they expected on a test, students tend to respond in a few predictable ways: denial, giving up (disengaging or even dropping the course), or reevaluating their learning strategies. Fortunately, we can steer students in this last, most productive direction, using the exam or assignment as an opportunity to help them reflect on their habits and assumptions about learning.

Saundra Yancy McGuire points out that many students haven’t had occasion to develop their metacognitive skills, so they’re poor judges of their own learning. They may be misled by fluency illusions, and they confuse learning with memorizing. As McGuire explains, “even if they are able to rally and work harder, doing more of what they already know how to do is not likely to help. They need to learn a different way. When students learn about metacognition and implement metacognitive strategies, their performance turns around.”

Here are two simple tools for helping students become better learners:

  1. After an exam or project, students can do a cognitive wrapper that prompts them to review both their learning—what they mastered and what they missed, so they can go back and fill in the gaps—and their preparation, including their study strategies, the approach they used to complete a project, etc. It’s best to make this an opportunity to earn back a few points, so that students will take it seriously. It will also be useful to remind them of this exercise and their own commitment to trying a better way before the next project or test.
  2. Steer students to Stephen Chew’s 5-part video series, How to Study Long and Hard and Still Fail, or…How to Get the Most Out of Studying. Links here. You can post the videos on Canvas or just email them.

And two things you can do to help:

  1. Look for patterns of error in the exams and assignments. When you determine where students struggled, you can address it in class. Were there common misconceptions? Did students have trouble moving from memorization to application? Did they have difficulty deciphering a particular exam question?
  2. Create more opportunities for practice and feedback (quizzes, in-class activities, homework, etc.) that help students improve their work over time and get a clearer sense of whether they are “getting it” long before it’s time to take an exam.

If you’d like to learn more about cognitive wrappers, study strategies, or building more practice and feedback into a course, we’d be happy to help. We look forward to working with you.


Student Consultants

If you’d like feedback on how your class is going, and you’d like a student’s perspective, you can now invite our trained student consultants to visit your class and gather data. There are multiple options:

-Informal evaluation: The student consultants can come to one of your classes to interview students about how well they are learning and how they perceive the class. The interview usually takes around 20 minutes. The student consultant then compiles the student responses into a report and meets with you to discuss the results.

-Observer/Note-taker: The student consultant records in writing what happened in your class (e.g., chronology of classroom activities; time spent in questioning, board work, small group discussion; and so on). If you wish, they can use the COPUS. The student consultant describes rather than evaluates, and meets with you to present and discuss the report.

-Primed student: Prior to class, you inform the student consultant what he or she should watch for. Examples: How often do certain students respond? Are the students discussing course material among themselves? What seems difficult for the students? What are the students in the back rows of the class doing? The student consultant writes his or her observations in a report to share with you.

To schedule a visit by a student consultant, contact Fabrizio Fornara at ffornara@fsu.edu.