Explore Strategies - Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students complain the exams are too hard.

Exam was too long.

When an exam is too long, even if each individual question is appropriate or fair, the exam as a whole may not measure mastery of the material. Anxiety may occur for students who try to complete the questions quickly, leading them to make mistakes due to time constraints. This means that the exam measures the students’ ability to work under pressure rather than their knowledge and skills. Because anxiety has a complex effect on performance, the completed proportion of the exam is usually an underestimate of how much students know. In extreme situations, students might panic and leave the whole exam (or large portions of it) blank. Unless being able to complete an exam under time constraints is a learning outcome for the course, exams that are too long will not provide good information about student skills.

Strategies:

Look at past exams to see what is feasible for students to complete.

Factor in the hidden cognitive demands of certain tasks.

Factor in five to ten minutes of administrative time.

Take the exam yourself and triple the time.

Have your TAs take the exam and double their time.

Look at past exams to see what is feasible for students to complete.

Ask previous course instructors to share past exams. They will help you calibrate length and even level of complexity.

Factor in the hidden cognitive demands of certain tasks.

A common essay exam question is to choose one among three prompts to write about. This is sometimes used in problem-solving exams when students are asked to solve problems from a menu. Instructors who use this approach generally think they are being easy on the students by giving them choices and allowing them to demonstrate their particular strengths. But choosing is a task that requires students to mentally review all prompts or problems, estimate the kind of knowledge needed to address each one and the knowledge they possess, use those two estimates to predict how well they will do in each instance, rank them all, and pick the most favorable ones. This decision-making process will take time, in addition to the time needed to solve the individual problems.

Factor in five to ten minutes of administrative time.

Realize that you will need to allow time to let students to settle in, move students around to leave an empty chair or an empty row in between them, hand out the exam, ask students to move their backpacks away from their seats, or whatever other procedures you use to prevent cheating, make necessary announcements, and so on. This can easily take five to ten minutes depending on the size of the class. Calibrate the length of the exam accordingly.

Take the exam yourself and triple the time.

Sit down at your desk and take the exam as if you were a student. Do the math on the calculator, write down each step, or do any other task they would have to do. Complete the exam in one sitting and triple the time it takes you. This is a rough estimate of the time it will take the average student.

Have your TAs take the exam and double their time.

Similarly, have your TAs take the test as if they were students, replicating the conditions of the exam (e.g., no books). They are not as close to the material as you would be, so it will take them longer. Double their time to estimate the average student’s time.

This site supplements our 1-on-1 teaching consultations.
CONTACT US to talk with an Eberly colleague in person!

  1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning. MORE >
  2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know. MORE >
  3. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn. MORE >
  4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned. MORE >
  5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning. MORE >
  6. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning. MORE >
  7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning. MORE >

learning principles