Despite your best efforts…..what now?

Your students seemed active and engaged with the course material. They asked great questions, offered interesting comments in class, worked effectively in groups on various activities. They seemed to be “getting it.”

Then, reality hits when you grade the first exam. While one or two students demonstrate proficiency and earn A’s, the majority only seemed to succeed with 70% or less of the exam. The mean is a C-. Several students just outright failed the exam. What happened?

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I remember when I was in college, the professors wanted the mean of exams to be somewhere in the 70-75% range. They hoped for a bell-shaped curve. Indeed, some professors actually did “curve” exams to resemble a bell curve. But with rampant grade inflation across college campuses today (and even high schools), a mean of 70 on an exam nowadays is cause for alarm.

I have to say that, when I give an exam, I am hoping that all my students have mastered the material. But….if all the students have mastered it and earned an A, does that mean the exam was too easy? That I suffer from an irresistible urge to give high grades? Or that my students are working and learning and mastering the material?

If exams are all about assessing the degree to which a student has mastered the material, and they have learned the material in part as a result of your active learning strategies and their own efforts, why wouldn’t all the students earn high grades?

There are a lot of issues here- maybe too many for a single blog post–but let’s unpack a few at least.

First, why do some students perform poorly on an exam, particularly often the first exam? Well….

  1. They just didn’t understand the course material. They studied effectively, but somehow didn’t learn it, didn’t ever get it. Is this possible if the students participated effectively in class, came prepared, asked good questions, did well on small assignments and group activities? Sadly, yes, it is possible.
  2. They thought they understood the course material based on their performance on all the stuff in #1, so they didn’t study effectively. The knowledge they thought they had acquired really wasn’t cemented. So, when faced with an exam question that explored mastery/understanding, they came up short.
  3. They were so anxious during the exam that they couldn’t really read or understand the questions on the exam. Or, they were so over-confident that they didn’t really read through the questions carefully. Careless answers result.
  4. Their level of understanding was good enough for recognition of terms, nods in class, decent work in small group activities and homework assignments, but was not really deep enough to answer mastery type questions on an exam without having access to the course material. Because they didn’t receive this type of feedback, or enough feedback on their level of mastery/understanding, they didn’t study effectively enough cuz they figured they knew it well enough. When you handed out practice exam questions that examine mastery, they didn’t actually do them, but rather looked at them, nodded to themselves and figured they understood the material because they recognized the words. Or they looked at the answers (if you provided them) and they made sense, so they stopped thinking there.
  5. You wrote an exam that doesn’t represent the course material, or that challenged them too much. A good control for this possibility is whether any of the students earned a high score. Let’s just assume for the moment that you wrote an appropriate exam.

The first exam is the place where the students and you figure out that some of them are not really learning or mastering the material. It’s an important reality-check. So, now what do you do?

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How can you keep your students still engaged in the course so that they don’t give up, but at the same time have them realize that they need to change their mental approach to learning the course material?

One thing a lot of profs do is to curve the exam. Take some of the sting out of a grade of 65% let’s say, by setting the “B” or “C” line to encompass 65%. Some others will just “adjust” the scores. So, if the highest grade is a 90 and the mean is something horrible like 70 or below, give everyone 10 points. This sets the high score at 100 and gives everyone else a fighting chance to earn a passing grade.

Or, some profs will reduce the value of the first exam in the final grade calculation to lessen the blow to the course grade. The remaining exams will then be worth a larger percentage. Some profs will just drop the lowest exam grade in the course grade calculation. You get the idea that there are a myriad ways to try to keep students from becoming too discouraged in terms of the grade they are likely to earn at the end of the semester. But, these solutions do not address the pedagogical issue that the students didn’t really master the material.

I think it’s important for those students who performed poorly on the exam to have a chance to try again to master the concepts. Sometimes we learn best from our mistakes.

Here’s one thing I do sometimes.

I give students a chance to earn back some points by having them complete an essay question (or more) or problem set based on the course material represented on the exam. The number of points they can earn back depends on how poorly they did on the exam. So, an individual earning a score in the 80’s could earn up to 10 points. An individual who scored in the 50’s could earn up to 40 points. Each question is written in the style of the exam and is worth 10 points. I then grade these answers and add these points to their exam score. With a short turn-around time of a few days, the students have to review their course material and prepare the answers. It’s a little bit like a take-home exam. I also ask the students who have a low grade to come talk with me about the exam and about ways they might approach studying and learning.

What are some ideas you have tried?