Explore potential strategies.
Students suffer from some form of anxiety or stereotype.
In some cases, students perform poorly on an exam because the testing situation makes them so anxious they cannot show what they know. In addition, students may under-perform on an exam because they have fallen prey to some form of stereotype that presumes they do not have the capacity to do well on the topic being tested. This latter issue is often exacerbated when a faculty member inadvertently triggers the stereotype by mentioning that certain types of students tend to do well in their area.
When a single assessment is very strongly weighted in the final course grade it can lead to increasing levels of stress that can interfere with students’ performance. So, it is helpful to make sure that exam stakes are not unreasonably high to engender these kinds of effects. When the stakes are very high on the first formal assessment in a course, these problems are especially great because the students not only feel the pressure to perform but also have a reduced sense of control over the situation. Alternatives to a high-stakes exam involve reducing the weighting of any particular exam, including more exams (each worth smaller amounts individually), increasing the weight of informal or less formal kinds of assessments (e.g., homework, in-class quizzes, and so forth) or providing more exams than needed and allowing students to drop the lowest exam score.
When students feel more prepared for an exam and in control of the situation, it can help inoculate them from the effects of anxiety and stress. So, give students multiple opportunities to practice and get feedback in advance of important exams.
Communicate to students that anyone who practices and/or studies effectively can perform well in your course.
Just by explicitly telling students that they have the potential to perform well if they practice and study effectively can help to deactivate any stereotypes that compromise students’ confidence or performance.
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