Exams as Learning Experiences: Ideas for Teachers in Designing Exams & Preparing Learners

21 Oct

Higher Level Learning: Alternative Exam Formats

As teachers who aspire to engage students in “higher order thinking skills” – applying, analysing, evaluating, creating – throughout a course and into final exams, this is a good time to be reminded that students who engage learning behaviors such as summarizing and synthesizing and posing new questions will come to the end of the course more likely to be engaged in actively linking information, ideas, and concepts at higher levels. Such students come to tests overall better prepared and less anxious.  And less likely to be engaged in cramming for the exam behaviors.

Students who are preparing for a final exam as learners will benefit from hearing our suggestions about how to synthesize and study course materials from unit to unit – whether the exam features quantitative or qualitative or mixed methods of assessing their learning related to course outcomes.   To help students move into high-level learning ahead of exams, we might provide students with ideas such as these (inspired in part by a UC-Berkeley resource on alternative exam formats, and by ways I’ve structure exams for undergraduates and graduates):

  • Create Crib Sheets – Even if you don’t allow these into the classroom, the process of openly creating abridged/condensed sets of notes will help students to identify vital, nice to know, and can do without categorization of information, to further cluster the vital information into memorable schemas, and to ask questions of peers and teachers in the process.
  • Create a Portfolio – Provide students with a course outline as a prompt for gathering their course materials – all manner of notes, assessments and assignments – into one virtual or print folder that they can then review to trace ideas, identify links between readings and lectures in previous assessments, and follow up teacher feedback to review previously completed assignments.  Post-Its are helpful here to code ideas, mark pages, and jot questions across the portfolio.  From this self-assessment, students will be better able to map their own study needs ahead of a final exam.
  • Create a [Learning] Map of the Course – Another way for students to integrate course learning across the weeks of a semester, or shorter span of time that an exam addresses, this process asks students to think through how one chunk of a course relates to the next, and the next, and the next. These modified concept maps help students make explicit the cognitive and affective links as they move from reviewing one segment of the course to another.  Marilla Svinicki suggests these guiding questions:
    • How does this topic compare with/relate to what has gone before?
    • How is it different? similar?
    • Why is this included in the course? at this point in the course?
    • What are the main points of a given unit/topic/theme? how do these link to one another?
    • How do the components relate to the overall outcomes for the course?
  • Create a Memorandum or Fact Sheet – for courses where students are expected to communicate ideas an external audience in mind, encourage them to study by organizing “one-pager” write ups for each of several key concepts to be addressed in the final exam.  If students are already working collaboratively – and will continue to be allowed to work this way in preparing for the exam – they can share the task of creating one-pagers to share with peers.  These short papers can include select information and ideas (with reference to where to find out more about it in course materials), major talking points, possible problems/positive outcomes related to particular concepts, and potential applications they recommend.
  • And, whether as a recurring activity or to provide a course synthesizing focus, invite students to develop a Course Question Bank of  “short, sharp questions about a topic or subject, and make a parallel list of answers to the questions, or includes learning towards the answers.” In posting questions, students exercise higher level thinking skills.

Developing Exams to Align with Aims

According to Mary Piontek, in Best Practices for Designing and Grading Exams, instructors can “develop exams that provide useful and relevant data about their students’ learning” by beginning test design with a focus on the most important course objectives have emphasized during course – the distribution of items should reflect the relative emphasis you gave to content coverage and skill development.  Links that can help with this process:

Whether setting out an alternative/authentic context exam, or a more traditional means of measuring learning, Barbara Gross Davis reminds teachers to take time ahead of an exam to clarify its format and scoring practice, and to devise for / propose to learners ways they can effectively study for the proposed exam.  Davis further offers these considerations about what to convey to students during the weeks leading up to a major exam:

  • Format: What exam format can students expect – take home, writing-based? in-class writing in response to a scenario or case? final exam period test with particular question types addressing all or some course topics?  Brief students on types of questions they can expect, and types of answers you will expect for the range of questions.
  • Scoring: Will narrative responses be criterion referenced? with what key characteristics distinguishing A from B from C from failing work? Will exams mixing multiple choice and short answer questions be curved or norm referenced? Will the exams be graded by the instructor? TAs? a machine? a mix of human and machine scoring?
  • Studying: How would you advise students to go about studying for the exam – do particular course outcomes come into prominence in the final exam? do specific readings and class sessions map onto those outcomes and, hence, onto the exam?  Remember here, as the teacher, you’re the expert on not just how the field is conceptually organized, but also on how the course works conceptually – so mapping out the links as you see them and passing this information along is part of the academic socialization role linked to your role as a teacher.  In naming how we link course outcomes and course materials, we both model a learning process and cue ways of learning while studying.
  • Organizing:  Does the test begin with questions, problems, scenarios, cases that are both interesting and that “build rather than undermine student confidence” by presenting questions that are “reasonably easy for a prepared student?”  See Exam Checklist for more ideas.

Finally, review the test items and prompts that you’ve created a couple of days after you’ve drafted the exam.  On returning to the exam draft, we teachers will have gained some distance from the writing of the questions in order to approach them as we would any other revision: critiquing each item for its wording, requirements, and relevance to what we have actually asked – required, expected – that students learn via both the outcomes published in our syllabi, and the teaching/learning activities or assignments that they’ve engaged in and out of class.

Fine-Tuning & Clarifying Directions

Prepare test directions carefully – to provide students with information about the test’s purpose, format, time allowed, and scoring criteria.

  • Consider this point from Chris Galdieri, UM alum holding a political science teaching position at a New Hampshire university:

“Exam questions are a great place to emphasize inclusive language.  There hasn’t yet been a woman president, for instance, but there’s no reason there can’t be in a question about a hypothetical president on your exam.  Similarly, there’s no reason a hypothetical candidate on a question can’t be named Reyes instead of Smith.”

  • Avoid extra language in writing multiple choice question stems or essay exam prompts.  Notice the difference in these two examples:
    • According to Tuckman’s model, groups develop through several stages over time.  Furthermore, it contradicts Poole’s activity-track model which has groups switching among several different linear sequences.  Which of the following is not one of the stages identified in Tuckman’s model?
    • Tuckman’s model of group development includes which of the following stages?  Select ALL that apply.
  • In setting out direction for essay exam questions, be specific about what you mean by discuss, analyze, or evaluate, be especially clear about this if you add the word critically before any of these verbs.
  • Determine – and be clear about – whether a question you have in mind for a shorter “discuss” or restricted response essay can be a one-sided reiteration of key points to be considered in a specified context, or must that response be a more robust two-part comparison of perspectives – and whether that comparison will need to lead the writer to recommend a particular action in the specified context.

If you want your students to provide an analysis as the rhetorical structure for an extended response essay prompt consider carefully whether the components you expect in an analysis are known to your students – have you already required use of this rhetorical structure in your course? If yes, remind students of that; if not, set out the parameters for analysis well ahead of the exam so that students may use this format as they prepare for the exam.

Help smooth this by providing students with a list of key words – such as those noted above – that will be used in an exam and specify what those terms imply in terms of structuring responses and delivering content within those responses.

Planning for Feedback – Before & After Exams

Research conducted by the UK’s National Union of Students is reflective of findings also reported in the US:  Analysis of student comments points to two main requests, if you will, from students (1) knowing how exams will be rated, reviewed, scored; and (2) having some feedback on the assessment.

As the 2010 NUS report sums this up: “Feedback on assessment plays a crucial role in a student’s learning, self-esteem and future development.” Even at the end of the term.  Just don’t expect them to come to your office to pick up the feedback, and don’t feel as though you only have the option to respond to each student individually.  Instead

  • Have students use Google Documents to send in a take home exam and respond directly on that file.
  • For paper-based exams, ask students to provide a self-addressed stamped envelope and one or two specific questions around which you will compose a response and mail as feedback.
  • Use Moodle to send out a classwide email or to post a sound file that speaks to the entire class about what made for successful and unsuccessful responses to essay questions, or patterns that emerged in answering multiple choice questions – especially if these impacted exam scoring.
  • Talk to students via a podcast about what you see as course content students have “mastered,” followed by naming those bits that need their continued attention, and maybe by a suggestion of two good resources for their future reference given interests in the topic that have emerged in student writing.

Additional Resources


One Response to “Exams as Learning Experiences: Ideas for Teachers in Designing Exams & Preparing Learners”


  1. What makes a great exam? | TILT - 22 February 2016

    […] as Learning Experiences – This post features curated ideas to set out practices for designing effective exams, ideas for alternative […]

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