Lolita Paff, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Penn State Berks
Do you ever feel like you’re teaching in the movie Groundhog Day? Where the same thing happens every semester? I’m feeling a bit of that right now.
It’s first-exam Groundhog Day in accounting. We worked through the foundational material and students completed the first test last week. Each term I try different strategies to make content clearer, improve access to resources, provide more practice, and enhance opportunities to learn. In addition to the usual strategies and resources, I assigned practice questions as homework prior to the test. Solutions were provided. Office hours were increased and shifted to before the test.
I gave the exam… graded them… and good morning Groundhog Day! I find myself scratching my head after one of my students revealed the following:
I sat down with someone that took your class previously
and they showed me where everything is….
I now found all the helpful stuff…
Even though you went over this stuff in class I didn’t follow…
Past variations of this include “I didn’t know what would be on the test” and “I thought I understood the material.” Every term there are students who ignore advice, skip the learning resources, underestimate the challenges, overestimate understanding, and study insufficiently. Every first accounting exam triggers Groundhog Day, where students (this time about 12%) have fallen into (some might say they dug) a hole that’ll required extra effort to escape.
Recently, Maryellen Weimer blogged about Five Ways to Improve Exam Review Sessions. She provided several before-the-exam strategies. It’s a helpful piece. Before the first test I used a number of the practices she describes.
What about after the exam?
What post-exam strategies reduce the chances students dig a hole at the beginning of their courses in the future?
Offer Help. I write a personal note to each student who did poorly (received a D or F). I ask them to stop by during office hours or see me during the break to make an appointment. I promise no blaming or shaming. It’s water under the bridge. The point is to talk about how they prepared to discern what will work better next time. Sometimes it’s about working smarter, not harder. I also make a point of reminding students they can recover from this misstep by stressing one important truth: for the outcome to change, behavior must change.
Debrief. “Let’s go over the exam.” [Insert YAWN here] For students who did well, this is a complete waste of time. For the students who didn’t perform well, a straight review of the answers won’t advance learning much. But exam debrief can be about much more than the answers. Here’s where I reinforce the message that behavior must change for the outcome to improve next time. Examples of behavior changing information: absences and homework completion v. test scores. I let the data speak for itself. I limit post-exam debrief to conceptual issues and grading philosophy. Since I want students to visit me, I don’t review each item in class.
Peer Advice. Sometimes I’ll ask students who did very well on the test to privately (on a notecard or in an email) share their best practices. These strategies are provided to the class before the next test. Students tend to take advice more willingly from peers than the teacher.
Exam Wrappers. After the first exam is a good time to provide an exam wrapper. Essentially, it’s a form wrapped around the test. Wrappers convey the message that exams are more than just an assessment of content learning; they are also a means of teaching students how to learn. If you’re unfamiliar with them, search “exam wrapper” and Google will provide over 1000 hits linking to valuable resources provided by teaching and learning centers. I like the explanations, examples and resources at Carnegie Mellon; Purdue and Duquesne. My favorite wrapper question asks students to assign percentages to the amount of time they spent on different kinds of exam preparation behaviors: preparing notecards, rereading the chapter, practicing problems, reviewing notes, etc. I find this diagnostic to be particularly insightful when helping students “learn to learn” in accounting.
Allow a Resubmit. Sometimes I allow students to earn some of the points they missed by resubmitting part of the exam, though this is generally more appropriate in economics than accounting. Some might disagree with this, and it’s probably not appropriate in all settings. But because my economics exams are take home essays, if a large number of students miss points, that means the class didn’t learn the material and/or I asked unclear questions. In those cases, my priority is learning, not assigning grades. The possibility of earning a portion of missed points motivates students to go back and rethink their answers to improve understanding.
Grade-Estimator. Usually after the first exam I post a spreadsheet I developed that helps students predict their course grade. Many LMS track grades, but I am unaware of any that allow students to conduct “what-if” analysis. The spreadsheet is set up to reflect course grade percentages. Students enter current or predicted grades for the various components and then see what their grade will be.
Some students use the estimator to answer the age-old question: How badly can I mess up the final and still get ____? I use the estimator as a diagnostic tool during office visits. I ask the student about their grades. Some cannot report them. Meaning, they are unsure how consistently they have completed homework, have forgotten exam scores, etc. This suggests they may not feel responsible or “own” their learning. When a student admits “I didn’t realize I missed so many assignments,” they are taking an important step toward self-directed learning. Improvement hinges on knowing where you stand.
Sometimes students consider dropping the course when the situation doesn’t warrant it. Other times they should consider dropping the course, and the estimator provides objective information to help them make an informed decision.
Most of my students are in their first- or second-year of college. That probably means first-exam Groundhog Day is part of the territory. But after our time together, these post-exam strategies should advance their understanding of themselves as learners. They may never record another debit or credit again, but if they learned about learning and use that insight going forward, that would be a wonderful Groundhog Day for them to repeat.
If you’re interested in reading more, I recommend: Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, Marie K. Norman, Richard E. Mayer. 2010. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.