student learning

More on Learning from Exams

My interest in making exams more about learning and less about grades continues. I’m also a realist: exams will always be about grades. But could they please be at least a bit more about learning? The best way to increase learning focus is with strategies

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Student Mistakes: Who Should Correct Them?

I write regularly about the value of making mistakes and the potential of learning from them. No, I’m not advocating making mistakes on purpose; most of us slip up plenty without prior planning. The problem is how mistakes make us feel and how those feelings

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Clickers and Problem-Solving: What’s the Latest?

At this point, clickers and other electronic tools that encourage student interaction are accepted instructional practices and commonly used in large courses. What they offer that other instructional strategies don’t is a means for every student to participate. Their effects are also relatively easy to

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Learning: The Times, the Ways, and the Places

I have fond memories of the start of the academic year, whether it was grade school or university. One such memory is bringing home my brand-new textbooks from the university bookstore. I love the feeling of opening up a new book—such promise, such potential. But

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Graphic Organizers: Strategies to Support Students

earning is a dynamic, complex, and nonlinear process, and graphic organizers can help support this across a wide variety of learners and disciplines. “A graphic organizer is a visual and graphic display that depicts the relationships between facts, terms, and/or ideas” (Strangman et al., 2004,

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Understanding Students’ Experiences of Failure

Failure is a regular column topic—specifically, the need for students and their teachers to reorient to it as an opportunity for learning. Our natural inclination makes us want to run from it. We don’t need to intentionally fail; plenty of it happens without intention, and

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Finding Learning in Failure

I’ve been doing some reading on failure. Yes, I know, depressing subject, but it’s our need to avoid failure that makes it such a distasteful topic. We—and the reference here is to teachers and students—need to orient ourselves to the learning potential failure offers.

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How Group Dynamics Affect Student Learning

The research is clear: students can learn from and with each other in groups. But that learning is not the automatic, inevitable outcome of small group interactions. Dysfunctional group dynamics, such as free riding, leadership problems, poor time management, and unaddressed conflict frequently compromise learning

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Chunking Content: A Key to Learning

One failure of the traditional face-to-face lecture is that it delivers learning content in large blocks—that is, in lengthy classes of normally 50–75 minutes. As Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski (2019) note, this violates the fundamental neurology of learning. When we learn, we first put

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My interest in making exams more about learning and less about grades continues. I’m also a realist: exams will always be about grades. But could they please be at least a bit more about learning? The best way to increase learning focus is with strategies that get students dealing with their exam errors. I’ve shared some good ideas for doing that in a number of columns now (see here, here, and here). As good as those strategies are, there’s a chance another one might better fit your instructional situation. So how about this one?

For Those Who Teach from Maryellen Weimer

Barnard and Sweeder (2020) developed it for use in a large chemistry course, motivated by the fact that even though students were doing a post-exam worksheet of “exam-worthy” questions—read: questions on which they did poorly—exam scores were not improving, and the same kinds of mistakes kept showing up on subsequent exams. In the new system, students do not receive a fully graded example in the next recitation section, as they did previously. Instead, they arrive having received an email that indicates their score on each exam question. What’s delivered to them in recitation is an unmarked, scanned, hard copy of their exam. In groups students look at their answers on what’s described as constructed-response exams. They identify their mistakes and with others in the group work to construct a better answer to each exam question. Then students work individually to fill out a worksheet and respond to questions that ask about exam preparation, for an analysis of mistakes, and how they plan to prepare for the next exam. After submitting the worksheet and their responses, students receive a graded copy of their exam that includes teacher feedback.

The approach abounds in commendable features. Student come to the exam debrief knowing the questions on which they lost points, but their privacy is protected. What they’ve missed is not marked on the exam used during recitation. They collaborate with fellow students to generate accurate answers—so they question each other, offer content explanations, and perhaps share answers and argue their merits. Talking about content helps students learn it. Furthermore, analysis and reflection encourage students to look beyond individual answers and toward general characteristics of mistakes. Here’s an activity that, as I’m fond of saying, gets students doing the hard, messy work of learning. The brief article does not say whether these revised answers earned students any additional credit, but that could be an option and might motivate even deeper engagement with the activity.

Too often we miss some of the learning opportunities that exam events afford. What happens here gives students a chance to learn content they hadn’t learned or had learned incorrectly for the exam. Feedback that identifies errors, even feedback that corrects the answer, does not illustrate the processes whereby one creates, finds, or improves an answer. In this strategy students get a chance to do that in the company of peers, which makes it less stressful than having to ask the teacher.

There’s always the argument about the student who aced all the answers, for whom an activity like this might be a waste of time. Given the fact that many students (even very good ones) store exam answers in short-term memory, an exam debrief can provide one more opportunity to encounter, review, and reconsider the content. And in a strategy like this, there are teaching opportunities, which are in fact learning opportunities for both teacher and student. In situations where the answer isn’t a single solution or a multiple-choice option, possible answers must be evaluated, and even good responses can be improved.

Faculty made this work in a large course. Exams were graded using an online grading program, with scores on each question distributed using the mail merge function on a word processing program. Technology does make teaching strategies once possible only in small courses now doable in big ones.

I keep hoping the days of posting exam scores with no follow-up in the course are over. They should be. That’s an approach that does make grades matter more than learning. Yes, it’s our responsibility to test knowledge acquisition, but we are just as responsible for teaching in ways that promote learning. And there are lots of good ways we can push the learning agenda forward when returning exams.


Barnard, R. A., & Sweeder, R. D. (2020). Using online grading to stagger midterm exam feedback and create space for meaningful student reflection. College Teaching, 68(2), 60–61.