Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students performed poorly on an exam.

Format of exam was unfamiliar.

In some cases, students’ poor performance on an exam stems from their lack of familiarity with the exam’s format. They may lack the skills for completing a particular type of exam and this may interfere with their ability to apply their knowledge. For example, if students took mostly multiple choice exams in high school and then had to complete essay exams in college, their performance may be an underestimate of their knowledge simply because they lacked the relevant writing skills to communicate what they had learned. Or, an unfamiliar exam format may weaken students’ confidence and hence lower their performance indirectly. That is, even if students had learned the new material and had sufficient essay-writing skills in some abstract sense, they still might be inexperienced enough that they are unable to apply the necessary knowledge and skills under exam conditions (e.g., with time pressure and limited resources).

To determine the degree to which students are familiar or unfamiliar with various exam formats, it is helpful to know your students. Considering your students’ year in college and their disciplinary backgrounds can offer some clues. For example, if your students are first year students, a reasonable assumption is that their most recent test taking experiences, i.e., from high school, mainly involved multiple-choice tests. Or, if your students are from other disciplines, they may be accustomed to tests of a different sort than what you plan on giving. Generally speaking, to verify the kinds of exams with which students have previous experience, you can simply ask them (e.g., verbally in lecture or via a brief survey) or ask the instructor of prior courses about the kinds of exams given. 


Provide sample questions that represent the exam format.

Model effective approaches for students.

Provide sample questions that represent the exam format.

To help students prepare for an unfamiliar exam format, provide them with examples of the kinds of exam questions you will ask in, and do so in advance of the exam. These examples may be drawn from copies of past exams, sample exams, or even homework problems that you have identified as similar to the kinds of questions you will be asking on the exam. Indeed, the most effective strategy for helping students prepare for an unfamiliar exam format is to provide them with opportunities to practice what you want to them to learn. This “learning by doing” is most effective when instructors provide timely feedback on how students are doing – so that students can adjust their approach as needed.

Model effective approaches for students.

Another way to help students prepare for an unfamiliar exam format is to show them (e.g., during class time or recitation) effective ways to approach the kind of exam they will face. This may be accomplished by presenting sample exam-type questions and then solving them step by step, giving explanations for each step along the way.

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