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

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students complain the exams are too hard.

Exam drew on knowledge outside of prerequisites.

Sometimes exam questions can be difficult because they require students to draw on knowledge from courses they have not taken or everyday experiences they have not had. For example, a statistics instructor may assume that all students in his or her course have a working knowledge of calculus even though it is not officially a prerequisite. In this case, an exam question that requires calculus would be difficult – and arguably, unfair – for students without the corresponding calculus skills. Similarly, suppose an instructor writes a contextualized exam question that deals with bowling scores, briefly reviewing the scoring rules of the game. Although some students may be familiar with bowling, others may not be, making this question rather impenetrable. These examples show how easy it is for instructors to inadvertently overestimate what students know – either explicitly or implicitly – and create an exam question that is overly difficult.

Strategies:

Analyze exam items to identify the knowledge and skills they require.

Ask your TA(s) to complete the test in advance.

Test your assumptions about what is “common knowledge” for students.

Analyze exam items to identify the knowledge and skills they require.

To avoid creating questions that draw on knowledge that students lack, the first step is to be more aware of the knowledge your exam questions require. This is especially difficult for instructors who, as experts in their area, do not necessarily recognize all the knowledge and skills they automatically draw upon. To counter this, try solving your exam questions step by step (perhaps even writing out how and why each step was taken), and then identify the knowledge and skills that pertain to each step along with its reasons.

Ask your TA(s) to complete the test in advance.

Because it is often difficult for experts to unpack their thinking and identify what pieces of knowledge and skills they are drawing on to solve a given problem, ask your TA(s) to work through sample exam questions and analyze what knowledge they used in order to perform well.

Test your assumptions about what is “common knowledge” for students.

In many courses, students come from a variety of majors and hence have diverse preparation from their previous courses. Moreover, students come from diverse backgrounds and have varied life experiences. Thus, prior knowledge not only is different among students in a class, but also is likely to be different from yours, leading you to make inaccurate assumptions about what your students know. To test these assumptions, conduct a prior knowledge assessment. See more information on creating, conducting, and interpreting the results of prior knowledge assessments.

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  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 >

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