All of what I’m about to say works a lot better if you have a somewhat systematic approach to lecturing, and you’ve drafted a thoughtful final exam that reflects this. But if it was your first time teaching and you didn’t quite have all your ducks in a row yet – or if you just had one of those semesters – all of this still applies. You may just need to provide more sample questions and work a little harder to explain what the exam will look like so that your students can predict what’s coming. Since most of you have already had to submit your final exams to the exams office, I’m going to stick to preparing your students for the moment of truth (I promise I will write a post on drafting final exams early next semester).
1. Be explicit about whether or not the exam covers all the material from the class.
As some of you may know, I love guest lectures. They expose my students to leading lights in the field and give them a better glimpse of people’s different perspectives. They also provide a chance to have some really interesting Q&A sessions. But this raises the issue of whether or not guest lectures are fair game for the final exam.
In my classes, material from guest lectures never shows up on the final exam in a significant way. Everyone has a unique teaching style, and I don’t think it’s fair to force people to try to guess about what I found most important in a lecture that I didn’t write. What’s most important for our present purposes, however, is that I’m very upfront with my students about this fact. And yes, they do still come to guest lectures even so. I think part of this is that I intentionally hype guest speakers – but the other part is that they know that I come to these lectures too. Students are therefore aware that I will know if nobody shows, and they also know that I will lose my shit the next day if this is the case. This seems to act as a deterrent when it comes to truancy.
Getting back to the topic at hand, I am also upfront about whether or not I will be testing material from the whole course, or only from the midterm forward. This varies from course to course, and semester to semester, but I always let students know. What I tell my students about exams is this: “My goal is not to trip you up – it is to let you show off.” My own memories of exam anxiety are vivid enough that I figure I have a karmic duty to the universe not to be too evil.
2. Think about how your slides/presentation style matches up to your exam questions, and then communicate this to your students.
Here, I want to go back to guest lectures for a moment. I don’t test on the material presented by my guests because it’s usually delivered in such a dramatically different way from how I teach the rest of the course. The result is that students are often panicky when it comes to guest lecture material because they can’t tell what bits of the lecture to focus on. They were, after all, only in contact with the guest for an hour or an hour and a half.
How dramatically different could my lecture style really be though? Um, yeah. This is where you’re all going to think that I’m more than a little OCD. As I’ve explained in the past, I always lecture to a question. As the lecture progresses, I have between 3 and 7 slides (skeletal, I know), depending on the length of the talk. The title of each slide refers to one broad theme which I am using to answer the question, and the bullet points beneath it are particular points of evidence. Unlike a written essay, I’m not clear from the outset how all of this material will come together and I encourage student to draw their own meaning as we move along. That said, we do tie it all together when I conclude, and students are asked to decide how they would answer that initial question in a 5-10 minute discussion period. Since we talk about historiography as part of the process, students have several ready-made answers at their disposal, or they can create their own argument.
Too structured? Alas, it gets worse. My exams very carefully reflect my lecture format. They’re usually composed of a series of short answers or IDs, and choice of essays (plus something from tutorials – often a document analysis). Essay questions come from my lecture questions, short answers are drawn from slide titles, and IDs come from those bullet points. I know, it’s a bit much right? And it’s hardly going to work for everyone, but this is how I role. Judge me if you will. I am a huge fan of spontaneity in other aspects of life, but I can’t shake the anxiety caused by being in charge of people’s grades, so I do everything I can to give them a fighting chance.
As I said, there is absolutely no reason your lectures should be as uniformly formatted as my own. But try to figure out, in general terms, how you present material and then communicate this to your students so that they can better prepare for your exam. Part of what they’re learning in university is how to differentiate the most relevant material from the rest, and then to predict what tasks they might be assigned based on that information. When you’re trying to pinpoint your style – and how it translates to exams –you’ll also need to think about the broad themes of the course. Make sure that you’ve explicitly discussed these themes with the class, as your exam is going to emphasize your narrative arc, and the questions that you set will no doubt be shaped by it.
3. Tell them what the weighting will look like so that they know where to concentrate their efforts.
Each one of us has a different approach to exams, depending on our time constrictions and our pedagogical outlook. Most of us will mix formats: essays, short answers, IDs, document analysis, multiple choice, etc… Tell your students what formats you’re using, how many of each type of question will be present, and if there will be choice. But most importantly, tell them how much every section will be worth so that when they’re studying, they know where to focus their efforts.
Personally, I put the most weight on the essay questions. The essay section is therefore usually worth at least half the value of the exam, and I repeat this information several times as we approach doomsday. I thus encourage my students to spend most of their time studying for this type of question. This makes sense in the broader scheme of things too because the process of studying for essays simultaneously prepares students for the IDs and short answers. The down side of essays, however, is that students are faced with an enormous amount of material that they need to master.
But there is a solution to this problem as well: with essay-based exams it’s often possible to completely ignore several lectures. If I am giving smaller essays based on single-lectures, students always have a choice. If they have to answer 2 out of 4 questions, then that means they can automatically ignore at least two lectures. If the essay question is a large-scale, full-course reflection piece, the same principle actually still holds true. Since students can draw from almost any lecture in the course, they will naturally have to focus somewhere, and so they can still avoid some lectures based on what material they felt was least relevant to the course as a whole.
I also tell my students the number of points that will be awarded to each section. From there, we discuss what this means in terms of how they should manage their time. For example, if the essay section is worth 50% of their exam, and it’s a three hour exam, they should spend roughly 1.5 hours writing that section. I guess what I’m trying to say is: make sure you teach your students to study strategically.
4. Give sample questions.
This is self-explanatory. It’s not absolutely necessary, but I’ve found it really helps students to prepare. This is especially true if you didn’t give a midterm because, if this is the case, students don’t know what your tests look like. When I do my exam prep lecture, I always provide sample questions that will not be on the exam (conveniently eliminating some more study material for them as well). I use these questions to illustrate where the material is being drawn from vis-à-vis the slides, and we workshop the answer as a group.
By doing all of this, I reduce student anxiety and my own. As I said, I find it unnerving to be in control of something as important as someone’s GPA, so I want to be as fair as possible. I really do design my exams and exam prep to allow students to “show me what they’ve got.” I want each and every one of them to do well, and I give them the tools to be able to succeed. But if, after all of that, things still go wrong at the exam, I feel a little more confident that it wasn’t me. Sometimes students are a sick, having a personal crisis, are sitting my exam last, or just hated the course. This will be reflected in their grades, but at least they had a fighting chance.
My students seem to sense my level of investment in their learning, and many are grateful to have an idea of what they are walking into when they enter the exam hall. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve written some bad exams – and graded some really problematic ones – but I find that a good exam prep class helps ward off disaster. As always, this is hardly an exhaustive list of strategies, so please leave comments below. And good luck to everyone in the exam hall!