Explore potential strategies.
Exam had unclear or ambiguous questions or instructions.
Even though the exam questions and instructions seemed very clear to you when you wrote the exam, they might not be as clear to your students. For example, as an expert in your field, you make many assumptions and use many conventions that help you interpret discipline-specific text automatically, without even being aware of the tacit knowledge you are drawing on. Moreover, it is generally difficult for authors to edit their own writing for clarity because they can mentally supply any information that does not appear on the page. Language difficulties can make an exam even harder to interpret for students who are non-native English speakers. For all of these reasons, students’ poor exam performance might not reflect a lack of understanding but rather a misinterpretation of the questions or instructions. As a result, students may be frustrated because they feel they did not have the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding.
It is often helpful to ask someone else to read your exam with the specific goal of identifying unclear or ambiguous questions or instructions. Your TAs, if you have them, are ideal for this task because they are familiar with the course content and your students, but still have a fresh eye for your exam. If you do not have TAs, you can ask a colleague and offer to reciprocate.
Sometimes students are unsure of how much is required for them to demonstrate their knowledge. They might underestimate what constitutes a sufficient answer (and thus lose points), so it can help to be explicit about your expectations. For instance, if your idea of a complete definition of a term includes a one-sentence description plus an example, say so in your instructions. On the other hand, such specificity would not be required (or even desirable) if your exam is aimed at assessing how well students can discern what makes an appropriate response.
Particular sentence constructions can be especially difficult to process. Such examples include the double negative and long, complex sentences in general, so it is best to avoid them. Also, in multiple choice questions, use absolutes such as “never” or “always” judiciously because these terms can lead students astray. Finally, avoid idiomatic expressions because non-native English speakers may not understand them.
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