Explore Strategies - Enhancing Education - Carnegie Mellon University

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students complain the exams are too hard.

Students blame the instructor rather than themselves for their poor performance.

When people are trying to make sense of a negative outcome, such as an exam not going as well as they had hoped, they must identify the cause. Unfortunately, motivational theories predict that many people gravitate toward attributions that are external rather than internal, uncontrollable rather than controllable, and permanent rather than temporary. The excuse of the professor being too hard is a typical case. While external attributions protect students’ self-esteem, they also rob them of opportunities to take responsibility for their own education, to figure out how they need to modify their approach to learning the material, and to feel the satisfaction of having overcome a challenging situation.

Strategies:

Emphasize the ways in which students have control over their performance.

Discuss class performance with students.

Debrief the exam.

Refer students to Academic Development.

Emphasize the ways in which students have control over their performance.

Talk to students about how they prepared for the exam, how many hours they put in, and under what conditions they prepared. Were they multitasking? Did they study in a quiet or noisy place? Did they procrastinate until the last minute? Did they seek help when they were confused? You can also reinforce this message with the language you use, such as talking about the grade students earned rather than the grade you gave them.

Discuss class performance with students.

Some students might assume everybody else shares their experience, but this is not often the case. You can dispel these perceptions by providing data. For instance, you can share the distribution of test scores to show students that the exam was fair because many students performed well. Likewise, you can share—if appropriate—some model tests from the best students to demonstrate that good performance is indeed achievable.

Debrief the exam.

Use the class after the test as a learning opportunity. Go over the most challenging questions, explaining what specific knowledge and skills they required. You can also have the students discuss their performance in groups, comparing their own approach with those of other students. Used in this way, the test—even one that went poorly—becomes a learning opportunity for the next one. You can even ask students to reflect on how they will prepare differently for the next exam. More information on exam wrappers.

Refer students to Academic Development.

Academic Development works with students, individually or in workshops, to help them develop their study skills and test-taking skills and to implicitly reinforce the idea that they are in charge of their academic performance.

This site supplements our 1-on-1 teaching consultations.
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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 >

learning principles