What Can We Learn from Exams?

What Students and Faculty Can Learn from Exams

Exams are some of the most common tools for gathering evidence of how much students have learned, but they can also be opportunities to learn, both for students and for us.

For students, exams can be opportunities to learn when we assign exam wrappers or other reflections afterward. Exam wrappers help students think critically about their own learning, so that they can learn more effectively in the remainder of the class and in future courses. These wrappers help 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 do some error analysis, identifying what they missed and where the information related to those questions or problems can be found. If students have an opportunity to correct their errors, they should also 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. We can even encourage them to form study groups to work on this.
  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? 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 miscalculations, misreading questions, etc.?

When you ask 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, which are another great strategy for turning exams into learning opportunities.

Just as students can learn by reflecting on an exam, so can faculty. Students’ performance on an exam, and their answers to the exam questions, are rich data we can use to better understand which knowledge and skills they seem to be gaining and where they are tending to struggle. For example, if many students get the same questions wrong, we can work to determine what the problem might be, so that we can make adjustments. One possibility is that students didn’t understand the question. We might need to reword that question or rewrite that problem so that students are better able to interpret what it’s asking them to do.

Sometimes instead of an issue with the way the question is written, many students getting a certain question wrong can be a sign of a lack of alignment of the components of the course. For example, we can ask ourselves, does the in- and out-of-class work provide adequate opportunities for students to get the practice and feedback needed to master the relevant material? If not, we can make adjustments to either the exam (changing the question or problem to align more closely with what students are learning in the course), or to the coursework leading up to the exam so that students have a fair shot at success. Because the stakes are high for students, exams are not the right place for them to encounter a question or problem type for the first time; they should have already attempted, not the same problem, but problems of that type, that requires a similar thinking process, in other coursework. An exam should be an opportunity for students to show us what they now know or can now do because of what they’ve been learning and practicing in the course. When we reflect on students’ exam performance, and our exam and course designs, we can get a better sense of whether our assessments are measuring what we intend for them to measure.

If you’d like some support to review an exam, and to discuss the questions and the coursework leading up to the exam, please contact us at pro-teaching@fsu.edu. We look forward to working with you!