Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students complain the exams are too hard.

Exam required knowledge and skills that students did not have sufficient opportunity to practice.

We’ve all heard the student complaint: "The exam didn’t have anything to do with what we did in class or on the homework!" While this is rarely true, it might be the case that some topics were covered in class but not adequately practiced so that students did not master them and hence are caught by surprise when they show up on the exam. Time spent in class and the number of homework problems on a given topic are the main indicators of importance for students and will guide their efforts as they review for the exam. In addition, some questions might look simple if using the right “trick” (e.g., a particular transformation to solve an integral), but can be very challenging or nearly impossible to solve without it.

Address discrepancies between instructional activities and assessment.

Give students more opportunities for appropriate practice.

Address discrepancies between instructional activities and assessment.

Analyze your exam to make sure there is a clear correspondence with the topics covered in class and on the homework and the questions on the test. If you do find a mismatch, you need to address it. In future iterations of the course, you could emphasize the topic more throughout the course or remove the item from the exam (or at the very least deemphasize its weight). In the current iteration of the course, your choices are more limited, and you might want to simply deemphasize the topic or type of problem.

Give students more opportunities for appropriate practice.

Sometimes you did cover the topic in class, but the students didn’t practice it adequately. For instance, students may be able to define and explain a method, but not execute it. Similarly, students might be proficient in specific procedures, but not in the skill of selecting the procedure appropriate for a particular situation (or the “trick” to use on a problem), or they might have all the pieces but have not practiced synthesizing them. In these situations, you might want to provide stepping stones toward the level of complexity you expect by having students practice the components of a process or the integration of these components.

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