When I was in school, the first thing I did when I got a graded assignment or exam back was look at what I missed and why. I assumed that was what everyone did. False consensus effect, anyone?
In a webinar a number of years ago, Roddy Roediger pointed out that that is what the better students do—which probably describes a hefty percentage of people working in academia. Better students look at their exam/assignment mistakes, and they learn from them. Less-than-stellar students, Roediger said, generally do not do that. Because they found the exam/assignment so aversive the first time, the last thing they want to do is look at it again. The least painful thing to do is throw the exam in the trash. And ignore the instructor’s feedback on the assignment. Unfortunately, students who do not revisit the exam/assignment are doomed to repeat the same mistakes and miss the opportunity to clear up any lingering misconceptions about the course content.
The post-exam everything-available group exam
When I gave in-class multiple-choice exams, I wanted students to figure out what they missed and why as soon as possible. I did not want to give any missed multiple-choice questions an opportunity to solidify as facts in students’ memories.
After students had taken the exam solo and had turned in their answer sheets, students would take the exam again using a brand new answer sheet. This time, students could use their notes, their book, the Internet, phone-a-friend, and other students in the class to answer the questions. Some students worked alone. Other students worked in pairs or small groups, but would shout across the room to consult with a different group as debate raged about a particular question. I had the occasional class who chose to do the open exam as an entire class with one student taking the lead. In those cases, I would leave the room. I did not want my presence to stifle discussion. Consensus was not required. Each student had their own answer sheet.
The solo exam was 50 questions worth one point each. The open exam was counted as a separate exam with each question worth 1/5 of a point for a total of 10 points.
My face-to-face classes met in 2.5 hour blocks, so it was easy to have the solo exam in the first half of class and the open exam in the second half of class. It would, however, work to give the open exam during the next class session.
I no longer give in-class multiple-choice exams, but I held onto them for quite a while because the discussions students had about the exam questions was so valuable. Students could see how other students thought through the questions and the answer options, and then used the textbook, their notes, or the Internet to support or refute each answer option.
At the end of the class period, some students would stick around until all of the answer sheets were turned in to ask, “Okay, question 6. We had a lot of debate on this one between A and C. What is the answer?!” Then we would talk about it.
During the open exam, I noticed some students not engaging. Some students just bubbled in the same answers they put on their solo exam, turn it in, and leave. Other students just bubbled in the answers the group majority had. These students probably found the solo exam painfully aversive, and the open exam just prolonged their agony. It was all a reminder of how college was not for them. Well, that is most-decidedly not the message I want students to hear.
If I gave in-class multiple-choice exams, I would still do the open-exam, but I would add in an exam wrapper.
A common instructor frustration
“I spent hours writing comprehensive feedback on my students’ assignments, but they keep making the same mistakes. I don’t think they’re reading my comments.”
Some of your students may not be reading your comments. They are probably the ones who found the assignment so aversive, they are just happy it is over.
One instructor self-preservation strategy is to use two-tiered grading. In the first round of grading, use a comprehensive rubric and type minimal comments. Invite your students to tell you if they would like a second round of grading with more detailed comments. Here, the instructor does not change the score but gives the student more explanation about their score. The instructor’s time goes to the students who will actually read their feedback. A solid rubric, though, can provide a lot of really good information on its own.
Exam and assignment wrappers: The idea
Wrappers encourage students to look at the past, and then strategize for the future. Following an exam or an assignment, students are asked about how they prepared, what do they think worked well for them, and what do they think they need to do differently next time. Here are some exam wrapper examples from Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation. The idea is to help students further develop their metacognitive skills, use what they learned, and improve on the next exam or assignment.
The research conducted on exam wrappers to date, however tells us not to expect too much in the way of impact on exam grades or metacognitive skills (Gezer-Templeton, Mayhew, Korte, & Schmidt, 2017; Pate, Lafitte, Ramachandran, & Caldwell, 2019; Soicher & Gurung, 2017).
It is probably not reasonable to expect a short reflection to improve student grades or metacognitive skills. Too many students have too many other responsibilities. Even if students know what they should do differently, it does not mean that they have the time, the energy, or the motivation to make those changes. A student who is working two jobs while taking care of two young children and an elderly family member may be happy just to pass your class.
I want to know, however, that students know what they need to do, even if they may not be able to.
Assignment wrappers: My implementation and my goals
In my courses, students respond to 12 to 15 essay questions each week. After students receive their graded assignments, I ask students in a separate 5-point assignment to answer five questions:
1. Submit a screenshot of the rubric. I want to make sure that students can find the rubric in our course management system and that they have seen it.
2. Approximately how many hours did you spend working on this assignment? I expect students to put about 10 hours into this assignment. If the student did not do well on the assignment and reports spending less than 10 hours on the assignment, I can reiterate those expectations.
3. Estimate the number of points you lost due to:
Trouble with definitions
Missing or not enough explanation of the concepts
Missing or not enough application to the examples in the questions
Didn't answer one or more questions
Didn't leave enough time to complete the assignment
Other (give a brief explanation of what you're thinking about here)
This question helps students think about where they missed points, so they can pay particular attention to that area on the next assignment.
4. What are you planning to do differently as you work on your next assignment? Students have control over their grades. There are changes they can make. Most students have some solid ideas on what they can do differently. Being able to make those changes can be hard, though. If students report on future wrappers that they are having a hard time doing what they think they need to do, I will recommend some basic behavioral change strategies.
5. What worked well that you are planning to do again? This is a reminder to students that they are indeed doing some things well. These are strengths to build on.
My assignment wrappers ensure that students are looking at my feedback, even if they do not really want to. The reflection helps students see that they have agency—that there are things that they are doing that work and there are changes that they can make. Finally, the wrappers give me a space to be a cheerleader and offer support.
“You have the right strategies. Just give yourself more time to do the assignments. Block off some time in your calendar each day, and defend that time as yours.”
“The changes you are planning on making are excellent.”
“It can be hard to study with all of those distractions at home you talked about. Can you go to the college library, the public library, or a coffee shop? Even for a little bit?”
“It sounds like you might be able to use some financial support. Did you know that our college has emergency funds and a food pantry?”
I had one student who reported that he left the assignment until the last day. He ran out of time and his grade reflected that. He vowed to devote a couple hours every day on the course. On the next wrapper, he reported that he was much less stressed. Not only did he finish the assignment with plenty of time to spare, he also had time to review and fine-tune his assignment before submitting it. He then added that he thought having his phone next to him while he worked was too much of a distraction, and that he would leave it in a different room while working on his next assignment. On the next wrapper, he reported that without his phone, he finished his work even faster. Yes, his changes were rewarded in his much-improved assignment scores.
This student may have made these observations and made these changes without the wrapper. But, with the wrapper, he stated his goals to me, and I was able to encourage him in his efforts. Now I can say to students, “I had a student who had the same struggles you are having. This is what he did that worked for him. Want to give it a try?”
Gezer-Templeton, P. G., Mayhew, E. J., Korte, D. S., & Schmidt, S. J. (2017). Use of exam wrappers to enhance students’ metacognitive skills in a large introductory food science and human nutrition course. Journal of Food Science Education, 16(1), 28–36. https://doi.org/10.1111/1541-4329.12103
Pate, A., Lafitte, E. M., Ramachandran, S., & Caldwell, D. J. (2019). The use of exam wrappers to promote metacognition. Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning, 11(5), 492–498. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cptl.2019.02.008
Soicher, R. N., & Gurung, R. A. R. (2017). Do exam wrappers increase metacognition and performance? A single course intervention. Psychology Learning and Teaching, 16(1).