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

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students performed poorly on an exam.

Students didn’t prepare appropriately.

Sometimes students spend time studying for an exam – possibly considerable time – and yet have spent their time ineffectively and inefficiently. This may be because students focused on aspects of the material that were not really important, because they prepared for a different kind of testing format than what was given, or because they simply do not have appropriate study skills for the material at hand. One particular example of students’ inappropriate preparation occurs when a test is being administered “open book” or “open notes”. In this situation, some students believe that all they need to do to prepare for the “open book” exam is to bring the relevant materials to the exam room. Then, when they begin the exam, they find themselves taking a lot of time searching through pages of text to find relevant information or, even worse, reading/re-reading the text and attempting to synthesize information on the fly. Another example of students’ inappropriate exam preparation occurs when students study by memorizing detailed facts and figures rather than practicing how to apply key ideas or reflecting on conceptual relationships.

Strategies:

Give performance rubrics in advance.

Encourage students to self-assess effectively.

Give students direct guidance for studying.

Help students overcome common obstacles.

Refer students to other support services.

Give performance rubrics in advance.

A performance rubric or grading rubric is a guide for evaluating students’ work along multiple dimensions. Each of the dimensions is explicitly listed and accompanied by descriptions and/or examples of varying levels of quality for that dimension. Rubrics not only help faculty assess students’ work fairly and efficiently, it is a useful study guide for students because it (a) communicates to students what you value in the assignment – i.e., what aspects of the assignment you will be evaluating and (b) defines the different levels of quality of student work for each aspect of the assignment being evaluated. This way, students get a clearer idea of what aspects of the assignment to focus on and have a standard of comparison to know what constitutes good performance in this course.

Encourage students to self-assess effectively.

When you give students sample exam questions, it is important to encourage them to try to answer these questions in a realistic, test-like situation (e.g., working independently without notes if the exam is closed to notes, and potentially with a time limitation if time may be a factor in the exam). This way, they can self-assess their progress in a manner that gives them a more accurate preview of their likely performance. In contrast, if students glance at the sample questions or simply skim the questions’ solutions, they can easily be lulled into a false overconfidence in their abilities.

Give students direct guidance for studying.

When students don’t know how to prepare for an exam, especially for more open-ended question formats, it can help to give them explicit guidance regarding where they should be spending their study time and what they should be emphasizing in their preparation. Along the same lines, if students are allowed to bring a page of notes to the exam, you can give them tips on effective strategies for what to include or even offer to check students’ notes a bit in advance of the exam. (In some cases, similar to the open book test situation described earlier, students will spend all their exam-preparation time copying notes into their crib sheet, rather than working to learn the material. Then when the exam comes, they have information on the page but do not know how to use it.)

Help students overcome common obstacles.

When students consistently make a common strategic error in their exam preparation, you can explicitly teach them test-taking strategies to help them overcome common obstacles. Examples include: reminding students to read the question carefully before jumping to an answer; helping students to keep track of their time use during an exam by marking various time points in the exam period; and even encouraging students to ask questions of clarification when something in the exam’s wording is confusing them.

Refer students to other support services.

If you have a particular student or group of students who consistently have trouble preparing adequately for exams, you can refer them to Academic Development for support in study skills and general academic counseling.

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learning principles

  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>