January 12, 2016

Reading through a listserv for A&P faculty, I came accross a link to this "Great Ideas" newsletter. There are quite a few helpful tidbits in the newsletter, some of them relating to A&P concepts (e.g. microcirculation or tracing neural pathways) and others concerning pedagogy. 

One of the ideas, found on p. 15, struck me as absolutely genius. 

In this snippet, Jacqueline Brehe from Carrol College presents a strategy she uses to help students assess their own performance on exams. I'll let you read through her idea via the link above, and I wanted to note a few items below so that I can find them later!

The "Exam Analysis" 

Brehe gives her students an "Exam Analysis" form after returning their exams, asking them to categorize each question they missed using a series of options like "I misunderstood the concept" or "I changed the right answer to the wrong" one. The answers tend to cluster in one or two categories for each student, helping them to prepare more thoroughly or adjust their studying/exam-taking strategies for the next exam. 

Brehe also provides a list of recommendations for students who notice a particular pattern of errors. For example, if a student misses more than a handful of questions because she "blanked" on the answer and remember it after she left class, Brehe recommends a visit to the testing center to discuss test anxiety and strategies for overcoming it.

If a student misses more than a few questions due to misunderstanding the concepts, on the other hand, Brehe recommends finding a study group or study partner. 

Thoughts on Exams in General

Over time, my ideas about exams has shifted quite a bit. When I first began teaching, I was naively under the impression that exams and term papers were the only legitimate ways to assess students. I mostly relied on publisher questions or took shots in the dark while creating my own, mostly fact-based, questions.

Later, I came to the conclusion that exams weren't desirable at all as they don't typically provide great assessments of many (most?) students. I avoided them when possible, and when it wasn't made them relatively low-stakes. 

Now, I'm somewhere in the middle. I do use exams in some courses, because I think the process of studying for them is valuable for long-term retention (if done correctly, of course!). 

I've come to realize that it is possible to design strong, meaningful and non-fact -based multiple choice exam questions. I've also come to realize that these are EXTREMELY difficult and time-consuming to create. ​

Next Steps

Lately I've been tossing around a new idea for one of my introductory physiology courses, which currently has only one final exam and weekly homework. ​Based on some ideas from continuing education workshops I've taken and the Learning How to Learn MOOC, I'm considering the following changes:

  • ​Add more exams - potentially 3 or 4 overall. These would allow students to refine their study and exam strategies over the course of the trimester. The final exam would still be cumulative, providing an opportunity to review material from all 15 weeks, which should be helpful for long-term retention
  • Incorporate an exam analysis after each exam (other than the final?)
  • Make homeworks pass/fail - homeworks would be graded based on whether students completed them or not. This would give the students opportunities to "fail" without penalty, allowing them to identify areas of misunderstanding. Another option would be to allow multiple attempts on homeworks so that students could correct mistakes to raise their grades. Homework would then become very low-stakes (10% of grade?) while exams would cumulatively count for more of their grade. 
  • Incorporate questions from previous modules into each week's homework - Currently homeworks focus on material covered only in that week. I understand that non-sequential review and repeated review at spaced intervals is more conducive to long-term understanding. While I doubt the students would enjoy this change, I think it would be valuable :). 

About Camille Freeman, LDN, RH (she/her)

Hi there! I'm a clinical herbalist and licensed nutritionist specializing in fertility and menstrual health. I run the Monday Mentoring community of practice and also offer continuing education programs for highly-trained herbalists and nutritionists (Check out this year's Deep Dive!). I'm also a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology, pathophysiology, and mindful eating.

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