Explore potential strategies.
Students prepared ineffectively.
In some cases, students feel an exam was too hard because they expected (and studied for) a different kind of exam. Students also may not know and use effective study strategies and habits. This second problem is fairly common among first-year students, who are less familiar with how they need to study for college-level exams. Although the responsibility to prepare appropriately for an exam rests with students, instructors can support students by giving sufficient information and guidance about how to prepare. Such information and guidance can be given early in a course (or program) and then slowly removed so that students ultimately have to manage their exam preparation independently.
Students may be applying poor study strategies simply because they do not know more effective ones. Thus, it helps when instructors share strategies known to be helpful (e.g., solving sample problems rather than just skimming solution sets or studying in the library rather than in the lounge). Students can also be a source of effective strategies for each other. For example, some faculty find it useful use some class time before the second or third exam so that students can discuss what they have found to be more and less helpful strategies on previous exams. Alternately, to help your students reflect more deeply on what they did to study and whether it worked, you can give them an exam wrapper. Exam wrappers are short handouts that direct students to analyze their exam performance relative to their study strategies with the goal of adapting strategies for better future learning.
Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, often a sample test or even some sample questions can be worth much more than any verbal description you give about your exam. Giving students concrete examples of the kinds of question you will ask will help them better understand what they need to be able to answer (as opposed to simply giving them a list of topics to review). Moreover, sample exam questions give students a performance-based means of assessing their own readiness for the exam. If you give a full sample exam, consider encouraging students to take it during the same time frame as the actual exam. This will help them evaluate not only their ability to answer the questions, but also whether they can do so with the fluency needed for a timed exam. Keep in mind that you need not create an entire sample exam or write up a thorough solution set for the sample exam you provide. Rather, you can offer students a representative set of questions or perhaps an old exam from a past year of the course.
A common problem that students – indeed, all people – have is assessing their own abilities accurately. Generally, people overestimate how well they will perform. This tendency is moderated, however, when people assess themselves based on an actual performance, such as how well they can solve a sample problem or complete a sample exam. Unfortunately, many students do not realize this and can misrepresent their readiness by simply skimming their notes and becoming overconfident of what they know and can do. Telling your students about this phenomenon and then encouraging them to self-assess in a way that is similar to the exam situation can help them gain a more accurate picture of their own progress. Providing sample exams or exam questions, as mentioned in the preceding strategy, and encouraging students to take them in an exam-like setting helps to promote effective self-assessment.
Academic Development is Carnegie Mellon’s support unit for students in academic distress. In addition to providing peer-to-peer tutoring for students in need, Academic Development helps students develop effective study skills and metacognitive skills through seminars focusing on time management, note-taking, reviewing for exams, and academic reading. Help on these topics is also available as paper brochures or online.
This site supplements our 1-on-1 teaching consultations.
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