Helping Students Prepare for Tests and Exams
Linda Nilson (2010) provides the following advice to support students as they prepare for tests and exams:
Reading and Review Strategies
You begin preparing your students for tests from the very first day by teaching them proven techniques for taking notes on your lectures and class activities. Of course, students should review the relevant readings and their notes before a test. More than 80 percent of the studies conducted on reviewing lecture notes find that the activity enhances test performance (Bligh, 2000). But just reading notes over, even multiple times, will not help much for the test.
The quickest, most efficient, and most effective way to study written material, at least for factual and problem-solving tests, is “active recall” or the 3R (read-recite-review) strategy (McDaniel, Howard, & Einstein, 2009; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). According to this method, students read a section of their text or notes, then put the material away, recite aloud as much as they can remember, and finally reread the section. In addition to reinforcing their reading by restating and hearing the material, students practice retrieval with self-testing, which is exactly the skill they will need during the test.
Study groups that meet regularly outside class are also very helpful (Hufford, 1991; Treisman, 1986). Since member commitment can make or break them, consider formalizing them by having students sign up for such groups early in the term. Then distribute a list of all the groups with their members’ names and contact information.
This study aid helps many students prepare for a test, especially first-year and second-year students who do not yet know what college-level assessment involves. You can make a review sheet as simple as a list or outline of important topics that you have emphasized, but this alone will not tell students how to study this content.
Students gain much more from a sample test or a list of review questions. These questions should mirror your student learning outcomes and represent the variety of item formats that will appear on the test. If you plan to use some factual and terminological multiple-choice questions on the test, then put some of those items on the review sheet. If you intend to test analysis and synthesis, develop some questions that require those same cognitive operations.
This method demands much more of your time and effort because you do not want to duplicate the sample items on the real test. But it is highly effective, and you can draw appropriate items from previous tests. Perhaps the best option for students is what is called a “test blueprint” (Questionmark Corporation, 2000; Suskie, 2004), and it can also help you design a test that assesses your students’ achievement of your outcomes. So, have your syllabus and outcomes map handy. To make a test blueprint:
- Begin by listing all the major content areas that your test will address.
- Designate their relative importance by the percentage of the test (or number of points) to be devoted to each area.
- Within each content area, write down what you want students to be able to do or demonstrate, using action verbs and avoiding internal-states verbs such as know, understand, realize, and appreciate. These statements should reflect your student learning outcomes, though perhaps on a more micro-level than in your syllabus or outcomes map.
- Allocate points or items across these outcome statements according to how central they are in this part of the course. In other words, instead of just listing concepts for students to “know,” tell them more specifically that, for instance, they should be able to recognize the definitions, purposes, and examples of a list of concepts and be able to reproduce a given list of principles. Let these statements serve as the blueprint for your test questions.
- Prior to your review session, make it clear that you will not be summarizing the past few weeks of lectures and readings or dispensing the answers to the review questions.
- Insist that students come prepared to ask specific questions on the material and answer any review questions on their own.
- With respect to their questions, always ask the class for answers before answering them yourself. Have the entire class participate in brain-storming and refining the answers, and assign different questions to small groups and have them develop and orally present their answers.
- Invite other students to evaluate the group’s answers, and then offer your own assessment.
There is another version of this format called pair/group and review
- Student pairs or small groups develop answers to review questions, after which you randomly select a few of them to present their answers to the class.
- Mock-grade them and explain your assessment criteria or, better yet, have the rest of the class mock-grade the answers to help students learn how to assess their own work.
One more variation, this one tailored to an essay test, is the question shuffle (Millis, 2005).
- Students attending the review session must bring in two essay questions, each on an index card, that they think would be appropriate for the test.
- They pair off, review their four questions, and select the best two.
- All the pairs circulate for a few moments, shuffling their two cards among other pairs.
- From the two questions they wind up with, the pairs select one to answer, and each student writes out an answer within a time period that replicates what the test will allow for such a question.
This activity furnishes a test-taking rehearsal, which generally reduces anxiety and enhances performance. The students in each pair compare and evaluate their different approaches to the question, giving them practice in critical thinking. As time permits, you can repeat the “shuffle.” You can then collect the questions (and responses) and use the best ones on the test. Not only does this review exercise supply you with an already-vetted test (or discussion) question bank, but it also serves as a classroom assessment technique, informing you about your students’ understanding of the material to be tested and possibly giving you the chance before the test to clear up their misconceptions and help them improve their essay writing (Millis, 2005).
Help Sessions or Course Clinics
This measure takes the review session one step further by establishing weekly meetings of one or more hours during which you or your teaching assistant answers questions. A regularly scheduled meeting motivates students to keep up with the course and not wait until the last minute to cram for a test. It also reduces stress by encouraging students to study without the impending threat of an exam.