Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students performed poorly on an exam.

Exam was not aligned with instructional activities.

If students’ practice has all been of one kind or has focused on one set of knowledge and skills and then the instructor gives an exam that goes well beyond the scope of what students have practiced, students will have difficulty and will likely perform poorly. This is because what people learn (e.g., any new knowledge and skills) is directly related to (and rarely goes much beyond) the knowledge and skills they get to practice. This aspect of learning is often surprising to instructors because, for them, the different pieces of knowledge and the various skills associated with a given topic seem so interconnected that knowing one piece is practically the same as knowing another piece. This is not the case, however, for students who are still novices in the domain and lack experts’ interconnected knowledge structures.


Analyze the alignment between instructional activities and assessments.

Address important gaps in alignment.

Communicate to students.

Analyze the alignment between instructional activities and assessments.

The most important feature of an effective course is how well its key components – learning objectives, instructional activities, and assessments – are aligned with each other.

For example, instructional activities and learning objectives are well aligned when students have the chance to learn and practice what you want them to be able to do by the end of the course; learning objectives and assessments are well aligned when the course assessments actually test students on what you want them to learn.

So, when you think an exam was not well aligned with the preceding instructional activities, the first step is to analyze what knowledge components students likely used as they went through the instructional activities (e.g., what facts or concepts were discussed during a lecture, what skills did students practice while completing a homework assignment) and then similarly analyze what knowledge components would be required to perform well on the exam.

In most cases, we find that there are mismatches between the knowledge students practiced and the knowledge they needed to perform well on an exam. This is particularly true when one is careful to consider as “practiced” only the knowledge that the students themselves actually used (e.g., by applying a concept to a new example, comparing one fact to another, or using a skill to solve a problem) rather than the broader set of information they might have passively heard during a lecture or read from the textbook.

Then, after identifying the areas of mismatch, the next step is to reflect on the severity and nature of the mismatch in order to decide what action to take. Sometimes the degree of mismatch is rather small, so there is no urgent need to take action at all. Other times, the degree of mismatch is rather large (e.g., the instructor did not realize that an untaught concept or skill was required for the exam).

But, most often it is the case that students learned and practiced knowledge that overlaps with but does not completely cover the knowledge required on the exam. Here, the challenge is to reflect on the nature of the gap:

  • Did students need to use knowledge in a new way for the exam?
  • Did the students need to integrate multiple pieces of knowledge that they had only used separately before?
  • Did the students need to apply the knowledge to a to novel context?
  • Depending on the situation, different instructional adaptations may be warranted (see the next strategy).

NOTE: it is often difficult for experts to analyze all the pieces of knowledge a student would need to perform well on an exam because experts’ knowledge has been built into larger and more automatically applied chunks.

Address important gaps in alignment.

As discussed in the above strategy, we can analyze our instructional activities and assessments in order to identify areas of mismatch between the knowledge students have likely learned (because they used and practiced it) and the knowledge they need in order to perform well on an exam. There are several ways to address such areas of mismatch.

When the mismatch is large (e.g., a new concept, it is worthwhile adding instructional activities that give students a chance to use the knowledge they will need. Then, when students engage in these new instructional activities, the practice will target the knowledge they need to learn.

When the mismatch is moderate, it may be the case that existing instructional activities are helpful but simply not sufficient. In this case, it is worth considering the nature of the mismatch:

  • If students needed to integrate multiple pieces of knowledge for the exam, then additional practice that requires increasing levels of integration or synthesis will help them build this skill.
  • If students need to apply the knowledge to a novel context, then making sure the instructional activities include applying that knowledge in multiple, different contexts can help students learn to apply the knowledge more broadly.

In short, make sure students get to practice what you want to them to be able to do.

Communicate to students.

Even if the instructional activities you use to teach students are well aligned with the assessments you use to evaluate students’ progress, it is important to be explicit about how the instructional activities of the course will prepare students to be able to perform well by the end of the course.

In particular, clearly stating how students will need to demonstrate what they have learned and how you will be evaluating their performance also helps students understand your expectations and hence make better choices for their own learning.

One way to accomplish this is by giving students practice assignments (e.g., before an exam) where your expectations are laid out in the questions and your feedback gives them information about where/how they did and did not meet those expectations. Another approach is to give students your performance rubric in advance of the exam. This will allow students to see how you will evaluate their performance and help them adjust their own learning and study strategies accordingly.

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