What Do They Know?

Do Your Students Know How They’re Doing?

The end of the semester is approaching rapidly. The exams and projects coming up in the next few weeks should show us how much our students have learned this fall. Hopefully we’ve designed good instruments, so that we can gather sound evidence of our students’ learning.  And hopefully we’ve given students adequate practice with the kinds of thinkingthey need to master, so they’ll perform well on these assessments. (If not, this is an important time to give them additional practice).

What most of our students need right now is a little help evaluating their own learning. Do they know how much (or how little) they know? Do they know their strengths and weaknesses? Do they know how to spend their time most productively, between now and the final? Often students feel somewhat in the dark, and have very little sense of how well they’re doing. This means they can’t focus their energy and attention very effectively. We need to teach students to self-assess their learning; in order to do that, we have to provide them with information so that they can make those evaluations.

Revisiting our goals for the course is an important exercise at this point: if the learning objectives are clear and concrete, you might take students back to the syllabus. If the syllabus language goes over their heads, you can translate it. What should students be able to do because they’ve completed the class successfully? What does good performance look like? What concepts should they have mastered? What kinds of problems should they be able to solve, what kinds of decisions should they be able to make? What reasoning skills should they have acquired or honed, and to what degree? The more concrete and transparent we can make our expectations, the more explicit we make the standards by which their final performance will be evaluated, the harder students will work, since they know what they need to achieve.

If you have old exams you can share, it can be very useful to have students use them for practice. You might even consider giving them some of the question stems without the answer options. It’s also very helpful to use sample exam-type questions as clicker questions or in-class problems, so that students will get experience with solving the types of problems they’ll see on the exam, in a lower-stakes setting. Questions students solve in class, where they can discuss their responses with peers and get feedback from you, should always be harder than anything they’ll see on the exam: anxiety will impede students’ thinking, so we don’t get good evidence of learning when we save the toughest questions for the most stressful setting.

It’s easy to forget that our students are novice learners—or at least, when we’ve studied in a discipline for decades, it’s easy to forget how complex our knowledge structures have become. We might expect our students to be able to identify the most important concepts and study appropriately on their own, but in fact novice learners have difficulty distinguishing big-picture concepts from illustrative details. This means that helping them focus their efforts is an important part of teaching them. If lots of students are asking for study guides, or if their exam performance has disappointed you in the past, they probably need more guidance.

We wish you a cheerful exam season, and student work that makes you proud!