Saturday, October 22, 2016

Learning beyond exams

If I asked “Are exams a necessary part of college education?”, chances are that many of you would answer yes. As educators we haven’t come up with a better way of measuring student learning, and after all, how would we give grades if we didn’t have exams? But do students learn much from exams? We know that our students often cram in order to pass an exam or quiz, and I hear constant complaints that they do not retain knowledge or that they are unable to apply knowledge learned in one class to projects in another class. While I’m not suggesting that we should blame the lack of learning on exams, I wonder if there are creative ways to use exams to enhance learning beyond the traditional studying that takes place before the exam. What do you do after the exam?

I must admit that akin to this week’s Faculty Focus blogger, I am guilty of often keeping exam debriefs very short; most often I don’t feel like I have the luxury of spending precious classroom time reviewing exams, especially as most students seem to have very little interest in revisiting their exam mistakes. However, if I really want to focus on learning, I know I should take the time – or require the students to take the time – to reflect on their learning through the mistakes they made on the exam. In her blog post, Maryellen Weimer summarizes a few published strategies to enhance learning from exams:
  1. Allow students to correct their own questions; this can be done individually or in groups and immediately after the students take the exam (before they know their score) or once the exam has been returned.
  2. Require students to reflect on why they made exam mistakes and have them look for patterns that reveal holes in studying strategies, skill mastery, or content knowledge with the goal of improving study techniques for future exams.

I used the first strategy a few times when an entire class performed horribly on an exam; instead of reviewing the exam with the students, I gave them the opportunity to work in groups to correct their mistakes using all available resources including the book and electronic devices. I then re-graded the exams and bumped everybody’s test score with a number of points that was equal to half the difference of the class average of the first and second exam score. This I felt was fair, as the adjusted score still reflected the initial study effort that each student had put in, but also gave everybody the opportunity to raise their scores. Surprisingly, the scores on the re-graded exams were far from perfect, which told me that there were major concepts that the students had not grasped, or the majority of the class had completely misunderstood. This gave me an opportunity to go back and correct misconceptions. In hindsight, I wish I had asked the students to reflect on their learning after the exam and the re-grading exercise, but that will have to wait for a future exam.

How do you handle exam debriefs or retakes? Do you let students take an exam over? How do you deal with exam scores and grades if you allow any kind of re-take? Do you incorporate reflection after exams and, if you do, have you found that it helps students become better learners?


  1. I do not let students take an exam over. I merely provide students with answers to the quizzes and exams. If they ask me how they can improve their grades, I tell them to look at their mistakes on their quizzes and exams and try not to repeat them; since some of the questions on the previous quiz or exam will show up again on the next the quiz or exam.

    Safro Kwame

    1. I'm curious, do students usually improve from one exam to the next on the identical questions?