Test Takers into Critical Examiners: Active Learning & Exam Review

“What’s going to be on the exam?” If your students haven’t been asking you this question in these final weeks of the semester, they’ve been thinking it. Repeatedly. Even the most enthusiastic advocates for alternative assessment methods often teach courses where some form of a traditional final examination is required. Being a dedicated educator (you are reading this blog, after all!), maybe you’re going to set aside some time for a review session to help your students prepare for the final exam.

What does a review session consist of? Traditionally, the teacher reviews (hence the name) the important concepts that he or she covered in the course. The students, so armed with the knowledge that Topic X is significant and will probably show up on the exam, often memorize some kind of answer that addresses Topic X (or so they think). Come exam day, they regurgitate some form of this statement when they reach the apparent Topic X question on the test. So far so good?

Not so fast! The savvy reader will note a few problems with this process: first, the answer memorized before the question is rarely one that addresses the question well. Second – the regurgitation. While this may produce some less than savory images in the mind (Sorry!), that is frequently precisely what happens: the student ingests data and then expels it, leaving the experience with little (if any) education remaining.

The problem lies in treating students as passive recipients of a review instead of as evaluators, as analyzers, in other words, as active reviewers. The great Maryellen Weimer has suggested a strategy to accomplish this: having your students write exam questions for the review session (not that you actually have to use their questions for the actual exam). Granted, they very well might compose questions that are significantly easier than those you’ll actually use on the exam. It’s likely that their questions will focus on details because the recall of discrete facts is generally less difficult than actual thinking, evaluation and interpretation. But, Weimer maintains, if you first supply your students with sample questions testing different levels of knowledge, they can begin to examine the differences, and come to a deeper understanding of the course material as well.

So, here’s the idea: before your review session, bring in some examples of questions that call for higher level cognitive processes, questions that call for students to analyze, evaluate and synthesize, in addition to fact or knowledge-based questions (see Bloom’s classic taxonomy of cognitive levels), and discuss the differences. For the exam review, assign them a discrete number of questions, and, if you’d like to provide more structure, you could also assign students particular topics. Let them know that their colleagues will be trying to answer their questions. For the review session, have the students do so (perhaps first individually and then in groups). Even poorly worded queries can become grist for discussion of the course’s crucial themes. Not only will the questions they create help show you how well they’ve internalized the course material, but you have also just turned your passive memorizer into an active, critical reviewer.

This post was written by Stephen A. Walsh.

2 thoughts on “Test Takers into Critical Examiners: Active Learning & Exam Review

  1. Pingback: Students as test authors « Differentiation Daily

  2. Pingback: Test-Question Writing Activities May Not Just Be For Students « the Bok Blog

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