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Preparing students for answering exam questions

September 19, 2011 Leave a comment

I used to allow students to bring in one A4 page of summarised notes because I thought that it would increase their confidence by allowing them to write down key memory joggers, thus freeing them to focus in the exam room on demonstrating their understanding.

I was wrong. The A4 pages were crammed with microscopic print as students tried to cram a semester’s notes onto them. Exam answers looked like a competition: the one who writes the most facts in the least amount of space wins.

The problem was that my exam questions are not written to elicit a shopping list of facts. In exams, I want my students to show me that they can think about what they have learnt, critique it, then select and apply relevant information to answering a question.

Every year I would tell students that the one exam question I can guarantee they will not get is “Regurgitate everything you know about ….” (fill in a topic). Yet every year I continued to see exam answers to this question, irrespective of the actual questions set. And every year, students would ask me why they had done poorly in their exam “because I studied all the facts”.

I find that students who appear in classes to understand course content but whose exam performance is below the quality expected fall down in three main areas:

  1. Too much time is spent giving background information. Students then think they have written a lot so must have answered the question. This is the student who feels every term must be described at length … with an example … but only gives a passing nod to answering the set exam question.
  2. A key word in a question triggers an outpouring of every fact connected with that word which the student can recall. The actual exam question is largely ignored.
  3. Students write without planning their answer. Freely flowing writing is wonderful and cathartic in personal journals but can be hit and miss when used as a style for answering exam questions.

So I started giving my students “mini exams” with no prior warning. I would ask them to spend 5 to 10 minutes outlining an answer to a question using dot points or a mind map. They compared answers in groups of 2-3 students then we discussed their responses as a group. Students were then asked to give their answer a mark out of 10 and reflect on why they selected that mark. Initially, that was the part they found hardest until they realised, to quote one student, “it’s not just what I write … it’s what I don’t write that really counts”.

I also provide examples of “good” and “poor” answers I have prepared and ask my students to explain why one answer is better than another.

I find it takes about 2 weeks for my undergraduate students to become adept at critiquing an answer I have given them and 4-6 weeks to become adept at critiquing their own answers. Since introducing this approach, student writing both in assignments and exams has become more structured and focused. An unanticipated bonus is that many students tell me that in learning to write more focused answers, they have become more discriminating readers.

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Seeing is believing – the value of thinking before writing

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

I can tell my students to plan an exam answer before commencing to write the answer and I can even provide them with statistics to demonstrate that students who plan an answer tend to perform better in exams but I find that many students need to see the difference planning makes before they internalise my message.

Dividing a class and asking half to immediately start writing an answer to a “mini exam question” while the other half spend half the allotted time planning the answer and the other half of their time writing up their answer, discussing the correct answer then asking them to self-assess their answer always shocks about one-third of my students.  I have done this many times with many different groups of students and those who prepare the answer before writing average a score of 2 to 4 marks more out of 10 than those who start writing without any forethought.

Exams can constitute a substantial percentage towards a student’s overall grade yet most students only face exams at the end of a semester when they are so concerned with revising everything covered during a semester that they are unlikely to spend time on developing the skills that allow them to perform at their best in their exams.

Both learning how to plan an answer that is succinct, well-structured and addresses the question asked, and being able to critically reflect on and evaluate the quality of one’s own writing are important generic skills transferable both to the workplace and other areas of study.

Categories: Assessment, Essays, Exams Tags:

Lack of Planning in Exam Essays

June 11, 2011 1 comment

For several years I have given students the questions for their essay-style exam questions two weeks prior to the final exam. I have written about my reasons for giving this type of exam question in another post.

In my final class for the semester I give students an exercise in preparing for this type of exam question. Typically I take a question from last year’s exam and get the students to prepare a plan to answer it. I divide the class into groups of about 6 students each and I ask the students to write their plan on an overhead transparency and present it to the class at the end of the exercise. I give the groups about 15 minutes to complete this task.

After all the groups have completed the exercise and presented their plans, we critique the plans and compile a final plan extracting the best bits from the plans which have been presented. I then talk about how I would mark that essay.

Once this exercise is completed I tell the students that, in the exam room, they should write their essay plans immediately they are allowed to start writing. Doing this will get the major points down before their memory is distracted by the rest of the exam and it will help them keep on track when they write the essay and help stop them from going off on a tangent. I also tell them that my experience when marking these types of questions is that students who do write the essay plans usually get in excess of 75% for those questions; students who don’t write the essay plans rarely get in excess of 75% for those questions.

My comments on the performance of students who do and do not write their essay plans has always been a guesstimate without concrete evidence.

Despite all of this, most students do not write their essay plans in the exam room.

This semester I compiled the statistics on the performance of students who did or did not write essay plans. Only 17% of students wrote essay plans. The average mark for those students on their essay exam questions was 85%. The average mark for the students who did not write their essay plans on the essay exam questions was 53%.

This difference in performance is not just due to the more able students writing the plans. Judging the students’ ability by their performance on the other assessment tasks given during the semester, some good students who did not write plans performed poorly on those questions and some less talented students who did write plans performed better than expected on those exam essay questions.

If any one has any suggestions on how to get students to prepare essay plans and to write them in the exam room as soon as the “start writing” instruction is given; I would love to hear those suggestions. My only idea at present is to put this blog post on their required reading list.

Categories: Assessment, Exams

Are “cheat sheets” useful for students?

When I allowed students to take cheat sheets into exams, I thought I was helping them.  Now, I am not so sure.

My reason for allowing cheat sheets was that it helped students structure their revision for the exam.  By having to compress the subject down to two A4 pages of hand writing, students were encouraged to summarise the unit and to select the most important elements to put on the cheat sheets.

I have not allowed students to use cheat sheets for a few years.  I discussed the reasons why in my last post.  A number of my colleagues still allow students to use cheat sheets.  I have marked some of the exams when cheat sheets were allowed and I have reviewed the marking on other exams when cheat sheets were allowed.  What I have observed is that students can only answer an exam question when they have the answer on their cheat sheets; if its not there then they do not know how to answer.

One of my colleagues had a great example of this.  One of the tasks second-year accounting students find most challenging is to reconcile profit to operating cash flow.  In lectures and tutorials the more complex elements of this reconciliation are stressed.  In the exam, my colleague set a question asking students to demonstrate one of the simpler elements of this process.  Many students could not get the correct answer and wrote a solution for one of the more complex elements instead; the conclusion we drew was that they had a worked example of the complex elements on their cheat sheets and they copied it into their examination book.

When I reflected on this, I pondered whether allowing cheat sheets was encouraging surface learning rather than the deep learning we should be seeking (Biggs 2003 Teaching for Quality Learning at University 2nd Ed.).  If this is the case then students would be better off (in terms of their learning) if cheat sheets were not permitted.

I have not searched the literature for any research on this.  If any readers are aware of any research I would appreciate being directed to it.

A colleague had a different perspective on cheat sheets; he argued that students will take cheat sheets into the exam whether they are allowed on not.  The only difference is where the cheat sheets are stored; on their desk or in their underwear.  Allowing cheat sheets stopped the feigned incontinence and diarrhoea.  He argued that honest students were at a disadvantage if cheat sheets were banned; allowing cheat sheets levelled the playing field.

I am not sure if he is right and, if he is, if allowing cheat sheets is the best way to minimise cheating.  I would appreciate hearing others’ views and experiences on this.

Exam Essay Questions

I teach the accounting theory subjects in the Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Canberra. I have always set essay style questions in the final exam. The performance of students in their exam essays has been a concern for me for some years. I wrote about this issue in an earlier post four years ago.

My previous practice was to give student the general topic area of the essay questions and allow students to take “cheat sheets” into the exam. “Cheat sheets” is the University of Canberra slang for notes (usually hand written) which some academics allow students to take into the exam. This method did not work for me. What I discovered was that students would pre-write an essay answer on their cheat sheet and then copy it out during the exam. The students took two approaches when pre-writing: writing an essay covering all of the main areas of the general topic area; or finding an essay question on the same topic in a previous exam and writing an essay to answer that question. Both these approaches received poor marks.

I never ask exam questions of the form: “Tell me everything you know about topic X.” My questions are always about the application of theory or research findings; not about memorising the facts. Students who would write the generic essay for the topic may get one or two paragraphs relevant to the question I actually asked which would get them a mark of about 25%.

The second approach was also unsuccessful. I never reuse exam questions. This meant that the essay answer the students had prepared was never the answer to the question I had asked. If the students were lucky, some of their background paragraphs may be relevant to the question I have asked so would again get them a mark of about 25%.

Four years ago I changed my approach. I started to give the students the actual exam question at least two weeks prior to the exam and I banned the use of cheat sheets. In the four years I have been using this approach I have modified my methods of applying it. I now run a workshop in the last class for the semester and get students to prepare an essay plan in groups of about six students. The groups then present the plan to the rest of the class and we critique the plans and combine the best features to develop a class plan. I usually use one of the questions off last year’s exam paper for this exercise.

After this exercise, I tell the students how I mark exam essay questions. The main point that I make is that material which does not answer the question does not get any marks so is wasted time.

I also encourage students to work together in their exam preparation to collectively develop answers to the exam. I tell them that it does not matter if several students have near-identical answers in the exam as long as the exam invigilators did not find them copying from each other in the exam room. As additional motivation I tell students that if they present their ideas on the Learning Management System’s (Moodle at University of Canberra) discussion board, those posts can count towards the student’s participation mark for the unit.

Some of my colleagues expressed concerns about this. My answer was that I do not care how students develop their understanding of the material in the subject, as long as they develop it. I will encourage students to use whatever techniques are likely to be successful.

After four years of refinement, this method of setting exam essay questions is working reasonably well. There are still some problems which I will address in a future post. What I have found is that students who put in the effort get good marks and students who do not make any effort get poor marks.

One unanticipated result of this approach is that students who do not have English as their first language do considerably better that they did under my previous approach. I suspect they benefit more from the opportunity to think, plan, research and discuss the questions than do the English speakers.

Categories: Assessment, Exams