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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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