After the Exam

Wrap it Up

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

Students will perform better in the remainder of the class, and in future courses, if we ask them to pause and reflect on what they’ve learned and where they’re still struggling. You might try an exam or assignment wrapper, a metacognitive activity that students complete after a test or writing task. A wrapper is a sort of “post mortem” that helps students to learn from their errors and further consolidate the skills they’re developing. The most fruitful wrappers ask students to do two things:

  1. Review their work and examine where they went wrong. Students should be asked to explain why the correct answer is the right response, or how the work could be improved. They need to identify what major concepts they had trouble with, so they can go back and fill in the gaps in their learning. If you’ve returned a paper with comments, it’s very useful to ask students to review them and respond in a paragraph, explaining how they intend to use your feedback to strengthen their next draft or subsequent submissions. If you already assign cover letters for papers, you might consider this reflective response the other half of an assignment sandwich.
  2. Reflect on how they prepared for the exam or tackled the assignment. How much time did they invest? What did studying mean—reading the material, outlining, reviewing notes, answering practice questions? If their strategies didn’t work, how do they plan to prepare differently next time? Less successful students are often those who read over their notes repeatedly, rather than grappling with sample questions. They may be investing enormous amounts of time to little avail, but you can point them toward guides to effective study habits, like Dr. Chew’s. Students should also look for patterns in their errors: did their mistakes reflect carelessness, miscalculations, or misreading questions?

When you require students to complete a wrapper, they benefit greatly from the opportunities for deeper learning. Some faculty don’t record an 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 an exam. Some even give two-stage exams.

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