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.