How to Make the Most of Practice Exams

Practice exams can be a valuable learning tool if they’re used correctly by students. They have the potential to give students access to exam-level questions that ask them to synthesize ideas across multiple topics, provide an example for the exam length and question styles, and offer students an opportunity to think deeply about new problems before exam day. Unfortunately, I found that my students have underutilized or misused this learning tool. One common behavior I encountered was that students would review the answer key rather than attempting the problems. “The right answer always looks right,” I’d tell them. In other words, skimming over an expertly organized, correct answers can give students a false sense of their competency with the material.

In an effort to teach more inclusively, I am constantly on the lookout for places in my courses where there is a hidden curriculum. I realized that practice exams were a place where I had made a lot of assumptions about my students that may be false. I reflected on the following questions: Which students known how to use a practice exam to get the most out of it? Who taught them? What other barriers are there for students in maximizing what they get out of a practice exam, like time constraints from work, commuting, or care-taking responsibilities? How can I provide a structure where students learn how to use a practice exam and have the time and space to complete it?

I have since developed two methods for practice exams that address these concerns. My goals with the practice exam assignments are 1) to motivate students to start their studying earlier by assigning a practice exam as a homework assignment, 2) to help students develop metacognitive awareness about their strengths and weaknesses with the content, 3) to teach students how to make the most of a practice exam in the absence of such structure (should they be offered practice exams in other courses in the future), and 4) to emphasize a growth-mindset.

In my introductory chemistry class, the practice exam is first assigned as a homework assignment due the class period before the actual exam. Ideally, students will arrive to class having made a first attempt and generating some awareness about their strengths and weaknesses. We then use class time to have the students work through the practice exam a second time in small groups. The group work helps to leverage the range of abilities within the class and offer an opportunity for peer-to-peer teaching. When I evaluate their work on the practice exam, I look to see that students have attempted every problem and that some mistakes from their first attempt are corrected.

In my organic chemistry class, I shift more of the assignment outside of class time because I want the students to take on more responsibility for their learning. As with the introductory students, the organic students are expected to make two attempts at the practice exam; the first pass closed-note, the second open-note (using two different color writing utensils to distinguish between the attempts). Since they don’t have each other’s feedback in this format, I work hard to give each student some personalized feedback on their practice exam and discuss any common errors during class time. Again, this assignment is graded for completeness and effort, not correctness.

While we still have a few weeks of the summer left, I hope that this post will inspire you to consider using practice exams in this format as part of your students’ preparatory work for tests. Year after year, my students report in the course evaluations that the practice exams are one of the most valuable activities in the course. If you have an alternate way to provide a practice exam assignment, I’d love to hear about it! And if you’re not currently offering practice exams, then I encourage you to consider how you might adopt them in a way that is not overly laborious for you but provides a real opportunity for students to engage in metacognition and growth-mindset thinking. 

Happy syllabus planning!

-Grace Ferris, Lesley University

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2 thoughts on ““The Right Answer Always Looks Right”

  1. Grace, I like how you foster two passes through a practice exam, especially with the two colors. I wonder, do you assign credit to either or both of those passes? Or do you find that students are sufficiently intrinsically motivated to do both of those passes diligently?

    1. Thanks, Joel! I usually award 75% to the first pass and 25% to the second pass. If any questions are totally blank, I’ll deduct some percentage accordingly. I think most students take advantage of the two passes. Of course, it’s possible that a student just leaves one or two blank (on purpose) on the first pass and then fills them in as the second pass to get the credit. I don’t worry about that, though. They’ll get out of it what they put into it, and I’ve done my part in giving them the opportunity to have a structured, reflective practice assignment.

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