There can be a big disconnect between how students define studying and preparing for an exam and how the instructor assesses student learning. After the first exam in my core biology class, I tend to hear statements from the students such as “I knew the material, you just didn’t ask me the right question.” After grading their exams, many times I’m left wondering “I prepared them for the material. Why didn’t they do better on the exam?”
To some degree, the disconnect in my class was related to the students not understanding that there needed to be a greater level of comprehension of the material. Most students have no idea about Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive learning or how it might apply to their studying and learning. My students, mostly freshman, believed in the turkey baking approach to studying…..if they study X hours=done!
I was very surprised to find that a large portion of the students felt learning biology was about memorization instead of analyzing and interpreting information and observations. Students felt reading the textbook or looking over Powerpoint slides was sufficient for studying for exams. I presented Bloom’s taxonomy to the students in class and gave examples of questions at each level that related to the class. I felt that I had explained to the students that their study habits from high school may not be sufficient for what was expected at the college level but did not observe many students changing the study habits they brought with them from high school even though they may not be working for them now. I didn’t see a difference in how they performed.
I decided that the students needed to be more reflective and proactive in regards to their study skills and exam assessments. I decided to create a post-test analysis assessment after reading a number of different assessment articles. The specifics of the three part assessment can be found in the Life Science Teaching Resource Community.
This process has been completed in two different sections of the course over the last year and included approximately 140 students. What was apparent was that students were not very accurate at predicting their exams scores immediately after completing the exams. Students over-estimated their exams scores by an average of over 9% on the first exams. Essentially, they thought they were performing a whole letter grade better than they were. Students became better at predicting their performance by the second exam [3% average difference in actual vs predicted performance]. And it wasn’t just that they were getting better at predicting their scores but that they were doing better on the exams. Overall the average on the second exam increased by more than 13%! Around 70% of the students self-reported that they altered their study techniques for the second exam as well.
So what did I learn from all of this? Students were talking more about understanding a concept in the classroom instead of memorizing a fact after doing the first post-test assessment. In addition, the students appeared to be better informed of what is expected of them during exams. They self-reported that they utilized new techniques for studying while stating they weren’t really studying longer [thus not just burning the turkey].
In the end, their average grades on exams increased after asking them to reflect and judge their own studying techniques and habits. Asking them to be more responsible for their studying seems to have given them a feeling of control over their exam performance that they didn’t feel initially. Hopefully they will take this new understanding of cognitive learning and studying along the rest of their college journey.
Kelly Wentz-Hunter is a LifeSciTRC Scholar and Fellow who teaches biology to undergraduate students. She serves as an Associate Professor of Biology, Allied Health Coordinator, and Pre-professional Advisor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, IL and is Director of STEP Summer Undergraduate Research Opportunities. Kelly has developed a number of curricula including a Cellular and Molecular Biology Curriculum for MedEdPORTAL.