“Exam Wrappers” Give Students a Chance to Reflect

Student studying. From Wikimedia.How can we help students improve their exam scores? We can nag them to “Study more!” or “Study earlier!” or “Study smarter!” But in my experience, nothing has worked as well as a post-exam assessment tool (available on my course website) with which students can categorize the exam questions they missed and identify study techniques that would have helped them perform better.

I “stole” my assessment years ago from Lena Ballard of Rock Valley College (a big thanks once again to her, if she’s reading this). It is a four-step process that begins by asking students to list the exam questions they missed and explain why they missed those questions (step 1). They then determine where that material was available for them to study (step 2). Just seeing that they could have learned it if they had studied correctly is already an eye-opening experience for many students. (“Oh look! It was right there in my notes!”) In step 3, students select items from a checklist of study strategies they used. Finally, in step 4, they write a study plan for the next exam.

I never knew there was a name for this, but now I know differently! I learned as much when I saw Kelly Cowan’s recent blog post (I Hated Your Class. It Changed My Life), which linked to a blog post of the same name by Jose Antonio Bowen. He mentioned the intriguing phrase “cognitive wrappers,” which (upon further investigation) turned out to be a general term for encouraging students to think about how they learn. My post-exam assessment certainly fits under this umbrella.

If you compare the post-exam assessment on my website with the suggestions on Bowen’s page, two major differences stick out. First, unlike mine, Bowen’s does not have a section asking students to figure out where the material they missed was available for them to learn. I think this is an important step. The second major difference is that I provide a checklist of study strategies, whereas Bowen suggests having students estimate what percent of their study time they allocated to each strategy. Genius! That small change would give me a much better starting point for understanding where students are falling short in their study habits. Next time I use my post-exam assessment tool in class, I will modify it to include percentages.

By the way, if you want to see another example, check out Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation. Its page dedicated to exam wrappers is complete with examples for physics, biology, chemistry, and math.

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