“What’s going to be on the exam?”


Do you love it when students waste office hours with questions that don’t help them learn? Do you want to cultivate anxious emails from students sent at 3 in the morning?  Do you want your students to wager their grades by guessing what you think is the most important material?

Then don’t tell your students what is going to be on the exam.

It is entirely legitimate for a student to be told the basis of their evaluation. Students take a course, and earn a grade. They should be made aware, as specifically as possible, the foundation for this grade before they do what it takes to earn it. The less they know about the basis of their evaluation, the less fair we are to our students.

The more specific you are about what is on the exam, the happier the students will be. Moreover, specificity gives you control over the material that they will study. I have often heard colleagues frustrated that students aren’t focusing on studying the right material, or asking the right questions while studying. I seriously don’t get these questions from students, and I think that both they and myself are better off for it.

If students ask you what will be on the exam, please don’t reply, “Whatever I think is important.” That just will help the students who are better mind readers. (Which are probably those with a social and cultural background most similar to yourself.)

If students ask you what will be on the exam, please don’t reply, “Everything in the lectures and everything in the chapters.” This vague set of expectations will prevent students from focusing on facts and concepts which are most important, and may lead to some students wasting their time on minutia.

The more vague you are about what will be on the exam, the less control you have over what they study. The worry about the mysterious contents of the exam detracts from learning. Our value in the classroom isn’t our content knowledge itself, but our expertise that allows us to parse the useful, meaningful and relevant. Asking the students to master too much information will result in no mastery at all.

Several years ago, I decided that the exam guesswork was a bad thing. Now, I administer three types of exams, all of which are designed to remove guesswork on the part of students:

  • I give students a full list of potential exam questions in advance. I then select a subset of these questions for the exam itself, choosing at random, haphazardly, or with a specific rationale. Here is an example of one, from a non-majors Environmental Biology lecture course.

  • I give students a comprehensive exam preparation sheet, one or two weeks before the exam. I give them a solemn promise that everything on the exam will be covered by one or more items on the review sheet. Sometimes these items are very narrow but other times they could be rather open-ended. But they are never intended to be vague. I tell the students that if any question on the exam isn’t based on one of these review items, then I’ll drop it from the exam. I am also tempted to hand these out at the beginning of the semester, but I call too many audibles to make this a wise choice. Here is an example of one, from the first exam in a biostatistics course. You’ll note that there’s a lot of material on there. I can’t ask questions to cover every one of those items. But I can make sure that students study them all, but also make the scope narrow enough that it is do-able.

  • I can give a take-home exam. I only do this if I’m blessed with a small class. Because are a variety of problems associated with take-home exams, I typically only do this with a small graduate course.

One of the more annoying questions that a student can ask is, “What’s going to be on the exam?” I just have to answer that with a single piece of paper.

Sometimes some students will email me, “What’s the answer to number 8 on the exam prep sheet,” or they’ll write me an answer and ask me how it meets my expectations. I make a point to not evaluate their responses or give them any information, unless I do so for the entire class. I might clarify a question or an item, if a student doesn’t understand the words.  Under all circumstances, I assiduously avoid evaluating providing privileged information for the students who feel more comfortable with approaching me for private studying advice, because that would be unfair to the students who don’t email me. I might send a reply to a question to the entire course.

I always schedule time during a class session prior to the exam so that students can ask me questions about any of the review items. Sometimes this lasts just a few minutes, and sometimes the bulk of the class period. (I do not hold separate reviews outside regular class hours, as I’ve mentioned before.) Usually when students email me a question, I ask them to save it for class, so that everyone can benefit from their question. But most of the review session is me saying, “I’m not going to reteach that entire lesson, but this is the nutshell version.”

The better I construct the exam prep information, the less time we spend in review during class, and the more time students spend studying with each other, which is where the real learning takes place.

6 thoughts on ““What’s going to be on the exam?”

  1. [Sorry, this got way too long.]

    “Under all circumstances, I assiduously avoid evaluating providing privileged information for the students who feel more comfortable with approaching me for private studying advice, because that would be unfair to the students who don’t email me. I might send a reply to a question to the entire course.”

    I too give out all the possible short answer questions for an exam, from which I pick a few to put on the test. However, where we differ is that I explicitly tell the class that I am happy to discuss any of the questions with them, in person or over email. I make a point of telling them that I will NOT tell them the answer (and I don’t), but I am happy to help make sure they are on the right track, and happy to help guide them in their quest to find the right answer themselves.

    In my mind—and I tell them this—this is because the purpose of the exam is to assess their understanding of a concept, and I see that understanding as a game in which we are teammates, not opponents. I think giving them the Qs ahead of time can achieve each of our goals in many ways pertinent to your post (I have censored my digression on that), but one is that it does lead some students to discuss certain Qs with me one-on-one. When this occurs, I first ask them to present their proposed answer for the Q (won’t engage until they have a legit one), and then I ask follow-up Qs to probe them to think more critically about the Q and their answer, so they end up doing most of the talking and eventually find their own way to the right answer. Who cares if this discussion leads the student to a higher exam grade? They only got there by working to enhance their own understanding, so why shouldn’t they be rewarded for that?

    I don’t think this is unfair because I allow students to do it over email, which caters to those who feel uncomfortable approaching me in person. Yes, some students are more likely to approach me than others, but the opportunity is there for all. I don’t see this as any different than any other type of out-of-class meeting/discussion with a student about material, as some students are less likely to utilize those as well. I doubt you refuse to meet/talk with students outside of class, but am interested to hear where you see the distinction being, because perhaps I am being short-sighted.

    I therefore don’t send summaries of one-on-one meetings to the entire class because I think that would just reward unmotivated students by handing out the hard-fought critical thinking of the first student with everyone. I encourage them to have study groups, but they have to at least be motivated enough to find/create their own, rather than just opening up their email to be told what Suzy thinks about Q5.

    One might expect this to devolve into some students just wanting to discuss every question for every exam—I worried about this the first time I tried it, but figured I would cross that bridge when I came to it. I am happy to report that this has never happened (and if it did, I would not oblige). I’ve never had a student want to discuss more than two of the 10+ short answer questions I post for each exam. I think students recognize that that would breach the contract of fairness that I have tried to establish with them in a way that promotes their individual education while still doing right by the rest of the class.

    Would love to hear thoughts on this from others (and you, Terry).

  2. P.S. You closed the comments to the posts on holding review sessions and on giving extra credit. : ( But I am just now reading them and have questions/thoughts!

  3. Obviously, academic conversations outside the classroom are a good thing! Nearly all of the emails that I get from students are so much academic conversations about understanding the material, but mostly attempts to try to try to get me to pre-grade an exam item.

    For example, a student will ask me, “Is this the correct explanation of a p-value?” Which I read as, “will you tell me if I write this on the exam, I’ll receive full points?” I think it would be unfair to respond “yes, that’s a great explanation” to that one student, without sharing it with everybody. That’s because every other student in the class might be thinking of the same thing but wasn’t comfortable emailing me about it (just as some aren’t comfortable talking in person), and I don’t want to confer an advantage to those who email more over those who think it’s not appropriate.

    When I get involved in a conversation, it goes just like as you describe – to get students to self-evaluate their own responses by asking leading questions. And if there is anything in there that might be construed as helpful, I share with the class. There are some students that are just reluctant to approach professors – in person or by email – and by sharing these conversations (I hate the online course management system, but that’s one way if not by email) then those students who don’t contact you will benefit from your responses to those who do.

    At my university, class sizes and teaching loads are high enough that students typically can’t expect personalized attention when it comes to study questions, review, and things that that. They often do get it, though, but it can’t fairly be expected of faculty to do this, especially as many of our instructors are adjuncts who don’t get compensated beyond a small amount of office hour time. If I were at a more expensive private school, then students typically do have higher expectations of the time of faculty members, and I’d be jugging other demands and concerns when students ask me about review items for an exam. That’s one plus about my current position, is that I never really deal with students in the courses who feel that it’s my job to tutor them outside class hours.

    There is a tool by Google, Google Moderator that lets students pose questions and then students in the class can upvote some questions over others. You could have students use this and then say that you’ll respond to the top ten questions.

  4. I recently closed comments after some period, because sometimes spam would make it through the filters and show up in the old posts (more than 2000 spam comments have been auto-filtered out in the last month, and a few have snuck through.) But this is as good a place as any, I guess, for commenting about other stuff too.

  5. Right on. But what if a student asked you, “This is what I think a p-value is…is this right?” only s/he asked you this in the middle of the semester, not right before an exam—would you answer? And if you would, why change that just because an exam is coming up (and when is the cutoff between “early enough” and “too close to an exam”?)?

    Love the Google Moderator suggestion, and will try it next semester!

  6. If that happened in the middle of the semester, and it’s not specifically part of exam review, then I’d be all over that conversation. I’d just write back and say, “you’ve got it perfectly” if the student does, and write back with leading questions if there was something to be desired in the answer.

    This might be surprising to folks at small liberal arts colleges, but we actually have big problems getting students to come to office hours. Students in our classes rarely ever come to by our office hours, even when we really ask or want them to. Even professors who are super congenial and perceived as super-friendly and helpful and popular with students don’t have crowded office hours.

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