Faculty Matter Teaching Tip #20: Helping Students to Develop Effective Test Preparation Strategies

Most instructors use exams of some kind to determine how well students are mastering course content and achieving course objectives. Many lament what they perceive to be underdeveloped test preparation strategies and unrealistic expectations displayed by a large swath of their students. Below, we lay out a number of techniques and activities you might consider implementing before and after your tests, to help students become better self-directed learners.

  1. Before the test…

A great deal of research in the learning sciences indicates that students who engage in regular (weekly) mock-self-testing do better on the “real” tests than their peers who put in as many hours studying in ways that do not include a self-assessment component. The self-testing allows learners to monitor their mastery of the material and also allows them to learn how to call forth the material they have learned. This advantage is equally significant, whether students work alone or in pairs/with peers.

  • Consider encouraging your students to add this sort of regular practice activity into their study routine.
  • Consider creating quizzes or prompts that students can use to monitor their mastery of the material as they encounter it throughout the semester. Be sure that the kind of processing of the materials required to answer the questions or problems you provide matches what you expect students to be able to do on your actual tests.

In our own workshops focused on helping faculty assist their students as they develop an effective approach to studying and test prep, we refer to “the 3 M’s”:

  • Building students’ metacognitive awareness: Encouraging students to  examine closely what they know and what they have yet to master, how they know that they know it (or not) and how accurately they can assess whether their command of the material is going to be sufficient for the way they are going to have to show or use it.
    • Pausing regularly in class —  to make time to solve sample problems, to articulate and defend one’s opinions about course material, and to practice explaining course material in low-stakes contexts such as small-group discussions — can be quite helpful.
    • Allowing a few minutes at the end of class for students to review their notes, or leveraging the discussion feature of the course learning management system can also help students identify insights or points of confusion.
  • Helping student master the mechanics of studying: Encouraging them to develop and use study strategies that work for them, as they strive to understand, manipulate, memorize, organize and use the material.
    • As your expectations of what students should be capable of increase in complexity (from mastering terminology and remembering facts to being able to analyze, integrate and apply information in new and creative ways), it will become increasingly necessary for them to move beyond the rote memorization and simple recall strategies that may have served them well at earlier points in their education.
    • Demonstrating and then having them practice techniques for creating graphic organizers or other ways of actively representing material in ways that are personally meaningful for them can be time well spent.
    • Providing students with an accurate picture of the kinds of questions or problems they will need to be prepared to answer will help them recognize the kinds of study strategies they will need to develop and deploy to be sufficiently prepared.
  • Helping students develop or sustain the motivation to dig in: Creating a context where students will strive and persevere even (especially?) when they have struggled with the material. Here, consider
    • decisions faculty make as they set up their courses (e.g., opportunities for do-overs, absolute grading scales vs. grading on a curve, formats in which students might display their command of the material) as well as
    • dispositions and attitudes students bring “to the table” (e.g., confidence, grit, resilience, and a growth-vs.-fixed mindset.)
  1. After the test…

Research also demonstrates the value of taking time after the test has been returned to reflect honestly and in detail about

  • how one studied prior to the test,
  • where one did well or missed questions on the test,
  • what the answers to these questions suggest about how to adjust one’s approach to studying, and
  • and what kinds of resources and support, if any, might be useful, moving forward (e.g., attending faculty office hours, tutoring, study-buddies, assistance developing study or time-management skills, etc..).

Such “exam wrapper” tools abound. One particularly thorough version is available at the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence (http://www.duq.edu/about/centers-and-institutes/center-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-and-learning/exam-wrappers). Consider requiring that students complete an exam-wrapper assignment.  Once they have completed it, have them refer to it periodically. And have them bring it with them to office hours, if and when you meet with them to discuss their work in your class.

We invite you to peruse the list of student success services and workshops available through SJSU’s Peer Connections (http://peerconnections.sjsu.edu/) programs. And please add your own strategies using the comment link below.

Faculty Matter Teaching Tip #19: Encouraging Active Participation

Encouraging active participation in between the First and Last Five Minutes of Class

A voluminous body of research supports the notion that students’ learning is enhanced when they participate actively in class.  Asking and answering questions, contributing to class discussions, working with classmates to solve problems, and other similar kinds of activities can result in better understanding and mastery of course material as well as enhanced enthusiasm about what they are learning. Building upon earlier tips, today’s Faculty Matter Teaching Tip consists of suggestions of things you might do with the time in between the first and last five minutes of your classes to create a climate where students are willing – even eager – to participate.

Two key constructs – Do you see evidence of them in your classes?

Several decades ago, David Karp and William Yoels coined the term civil attention, to refer to students who were, technically, abiding by classroom behavioral norms – appearing to follow the instructor’s presentation, taking notes, nodding or chuckling at appropriate moments, suggesting that they were “engaged”, when really, their attention was at least partially elsewhere. (Karp and Yoels, 1976).  From a distance, such behavior appears cooperative.  In actuality, while it is not outwardly disruptive, students who engage in it are robbing themselves of the opportunity to get much out of their presence in class, and they are doing little to enrich the experience of their classmates.

These same authors also introduced the notion of consolidation of responsibility, the observation that absent concerted efforts on the part of the instructor, a small handful of students is typically responsible for the vast majority of verbal contribution to the class. The rest of the students sit in silence – some are relieved not to have to talk, others are frustrated by the dominance of a few, and others do not care one way or the other.

Encouraging more wide-spread active participation in discussion

Make sure you’ve created a “safe” and inviting space in your classroom, where students feel comfortable speaking up.

  • Consider how your students likely perceive you. Would they say you are approachable?  Personable? Fair? Interested in them and their well-being? Although it is always wise to use self-disclosure judiciously, share your enthusiasm as well as your personal experience as it relates to the course content. Students who feel welcome are more likely to participate.
  • Consider how you have responded when students have offered answers that were incorrect or irrelevant.Have you invited them to explain or elaborate upon their though process? Have you conveyed that their answer, while non-ideal is some ways, may have moved the conversation (and the learning) forward? Have you responded similarly to students whose contributions were more obviously correct or pertinent?  Have you consistently enforced standards of civility and mutual respect among the students in the class.

Point to ponder:  Most “talkers” sit within a few feet of the instructor, where they can  “connect” more easily. 

  • Encourage more students to contribute by moving around the classroom (space and furniture permitting).
  • Make eye contact with students throughout the room, not just those who sit in the front few rows.

Another point to ponder: Many “quiet” students simply need time to compose their thoughts before they are comfortable speaking up. 

  • Buy time.  As you pose a question to the class, explicitly instruct students to write down a few notes or reflect before answering.
  • Refrain from always calling on students who are the first to raise their hands.
  • Encourage students who have not yet spoken up to join in the discussion (“Let’s hear from someone who hasn’t spoken up…” or Let’s hear from some in this part of the room…” and then remember to wait for someone to contribute.)
  • Be sure to acknowledge first-time or infrequent contributors. You may want to do this discretely, as you circulate about the room or after class.
  • For more ideas along these lines, consider additional resources discussing “wait time” and related constructs.

Ask questions that will likely lead to productive discussion.

  • Yes-no and factual questions do not typically lead to extended conversation.  Be prepared to ask follow-up questions. (“Why do you think that?” “Can you explain your reasoning?”)
  • Be careful that your conversational prompts are clear. The “talkers” in the class may be eager to respond to anything, even if they are not sure what you are talking about, but the “quiet” ones may be all the more reluctant to speak up of they are not sure what you are driving at. It may take a series of “scaffolding” questions to move through a multi-faceted or nuanced topic that you would like students to talk about.

Try a variety of structures for engineering class discussions.

  • Have students consider a topic in pairs or small groups before inviting whole-class discussion. Circulate as students talk in small groups.  Call on individuals or groups strategically (“Would you mind if I call on you when we come together as a whole class? That was a really interesting observation you made…”)
  • Assign students to categories – numbers, colors, types of flora & fauna, etc.. –  and solicit participation by group (“Let’s hear from someone who is a ‘Red’ now”). This can lessen the threshold for shy students.

In future posts, we will consider a variety of ways to engage students actively in class through group activities in class.  In the meantime, for additional suggestions pertaining to today’s topic, see, for example, advice on the Washington University in St. Louis Teaching Center website. Please add your own strategies using the comment link below.


Faculty Matter Teaching Tip #18: Re-engaging Students Who Are At Risk to Fail the Course

This is the time in the semester where you become aware of students who are struggling in your course. Reaching out to students in the middle of the semester is a proven effective way to re-engage them in the class, increase learning of the content, and ultimately increase their academic success.  Below are some resources to support students.

Progress Reports and Spartan Connect Program

Last Friday, the Office of Student and Faculty Success sent out requests to some faculty for progress reports on some students. If you have these students in your class, you would have received an email with the subject header “Spring 2017 Progress Reports”. Please take the time to read and respond to that email.

This is a request for your help in identifying students in your class who may be in jeopardy academically and might benefit from extra support. We realize that your time is valuable and your prompt participation in this request allows us to provide appropriate and effective academic support for the students who might be at academic risk.

In addition, you have the ability to proactively alert us to any other students who are struggling in your class (who you weren’t asked about in the progress report email). Through Spartan Connect, you can bring these students to the attention of our staff advisors who will reach out to the student.

Using Canvas Tools to Identify Students in Need of Support

There are a couple of tools in Canvas that allow you to relatively quickly assess the engagement of students in your course and to reach out to those students. When you open a course shell, select “View Course Analytics” on the right-hand side. From there you can see the activity, submission, and breakdown of grades by assignment. At the bottom of this, you will see a list of the students in the class. When you click on a student, you see their level of engagement. If you wish to reach out to the student, you can click on the “envelope” icon by their name to send them a message.

There is also a new feature in Canvas called “Student Context Cards”. Click on “People” on the left side bar. Then when you click on a student’s name, a panel will open on the right that summarizes the student’s overall grade, grades on recent assignments, and level of participation and viewing of course pages. You can scroll through the students in your class to see each student’s context card. If you wish to reach out to the student, you can click on the “envelope” icon by their name to send them a message.

Connecting Student to University Support

Below are some places on campuses where students can get tutoring or attend academic success skill workshops. You can highlight these resources to all students by mentioning them at the start of class, posting them on Canvas, or emailing them to the class. You can also pass this information on to particular students who you see struggling. Send them an email or Canvas message with the resources and a note encouraging them to both take advantage of these resources and to come and see you in office hours.

Peer Connections provides one on one appointments for peer mentoring and tutoring. They also offer several workshops a month on academic success skills. The Writing Center offers one on one tutoring for writing, online resources, and workshops. The Communications Center has drop in and one on one appointments for oral and written communication. There are also numerous tutoring centers in the departments and colleges listed on the Tutoring Hub.

Educational Counseling provides one on one appointments, workshops, and online resources for academic success. The Spartan Success Portal has a range of online, academic success modules.

The library has technology workshops. In addition, the library offers resources to support students, including laptop and I-pad rentals, meeting rooms that can reserved for teamwork or collaboration, details online to help the student define the type of resources and help they need and how to connect with a librarian, and online resources on referencing and literature reviews and tutorials on plagiarism.

While we know this is an incredibly busy time of the semester, the time you spend now reaching out to students and connecting them with support is an investment that will pay off in their improved academic success.

You can read all previous Faculty Matter Tips on the Provost’s Academic Spotlight blog under the category “Faculty Matter. Share your thoughts and ideas by clicking on the comments link below.

Faculty Matter Teaching tip #17: The Last Five Minutes of Class

Faculty Matter Teaching Tip #17: The Last Five Minutes of Class

A significant literature on college student success points to the importance of helping students develop the skills and dispositions needed to monitor and guide their own learning. (See, for example, Major, Harris & Zakrajsek, 2016 Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success.) While some recommendations entail relatively complex and protracted “interventions”, others are much easier to implement. For example, the last five minutes of class time represent a critical opportunity, often squandered, to help students assume more intentional control of their own learning, by reflecting on the material they have just covered, by identifying points that were unclear, by noting connections to topics or ideas covered earlier or elsewhere, and by positioning themselves for what will come next in the course. Today’s Faculty Matter Teaching Tip consists of suggestions of things you might do with the last five minutes of your classes.

Make sure that students have the chance to engage in some kind of reflection or synthesis, as this kind of active manipulation of course materials can enhance their active engagement with their learning – or in other words, it can help them take responsibility for their own academic success.

  • Some of us have very well-honed time management skills and can anticipate with great precision how much time each element of our “lesson plan” will require. To the degree that this is the case, we can plan and execute fairly elaborate “wrap-up exercises” for the day. 
  • Others of us have some difficulty predicting how far we will get in any given day, or we opt, quite intentionally, to depart from our plan as student interest and other considerations warrant. This may mean that we need to be rather nimble in deciding on a good “stopping point” for the day, and we may also need to plan to be flexible about how we will reach closure in a way that allows students to tie things together in a meaningful way.

Close with a recap of the day – Reserve a few minutes at the end of class (or as the final step on an on-line module) to summarize key points. But rather than you providing the summary, have students state what they think were the main ideas.

  • Have students “turn-and-talk” with seat-mates, to compare notes. (This can be adapted to for implementation in on-line courses by using LMS discussion features.)
  • As ideas are proffered, acknowledge them, expand on them, invite brief discussion of them as you see fit.  Be sure to correct inaccuracies as warranted.
  • Consider having them do this without consulting their notes or other materials.  Such “retrieval practice”, as it is termed in research in the learning sciences, will give them a chance to “practice remembering,” a strategy which has been shown to promote learning.
  • If you began the class by posing a “question of the day”, consider soliciting “answers’, in light of the day’s activities.

Close with a few minutes for students to reflect in writing on the day’s class, and to identify any points of confusion or lack of clarity.

  • Allocate one or two minutes for students to write about the day’s class (“one-minute paper”). You may want to provide a more specific prompt, to focus them on something you want to be sure they consider. You may want to leave this assignment fairly open-ended, to see what meaning they are making of the material you are covering (e.g., “Today I learned…”  or “The most surprising thing about today’s class was…”).
  • Allocate a few minutes for students to identify areas where they would like more information or clarification (“muddiest point” questions, such as “I am still confused about…” or “I would like more information about…”).  Gather these writings and begin the next class with a guided discussion to address common themes or critical misconceptions.

For additional suggestions, see  http://www.chronicle.com/article/Small-Changes-in-Teaching-The/235583 .

Please add your own strategies using the comment link below.

Faculty Matter Teaching Tip #16: The First Five Minutes

Faculty Matter Teaching Tip #16: The First Five Minutes

In his book Small Teaching:  Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning and in numerous articles and postings[1], James Lang, professor and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, has summarized a great deal of current research about college student learning.  He also provides many excellent easy-to-implement ideas for nurturing student engagement.

One of his key themes is that the first five minutes of class time represent a critical opportunity, often squandered, to engage students, to help focus their attention, and to help them deepen their mastery of the course material at hand. Today’s Faculty Matter Teaching Tip consists of suggestions of things you might do with the first five minutes of your classes.

Open with a “question-of-the-day” or a “warm-up problem” – As students arrive and settle in to their seats, have them spend a few minutes on a question or a problem to solve. This can have many benefits (or “feed many birds with one piece of bread,” as former College of Education dean, Susan Meyers was wont to say):

  • It should help them make the transition from whatever they were doing or thinking about prior to your class to what you want them to focus on in your class.
  • It will provide a relatively low-stakes opportunity to assess their progress mastering the course material. You may opt to collect their work or not, and grade it or not, but there should be some mechanism by which they receive feedback on their answer, as appropriate to the type of question of problem.
  • If you have them collaborate with classmates, it also provides an opportunity for them to practice articulating their reasoning, defending their approaches and listening to and learning from each other.

You can segue into the rest of the day’s activities with a brief full-class discussion, and if appropriate, return to the question and the end of the class period to consider how students might approach it again, in light of the content of the day’s class.

Open with a summary of “where we left off” or “what we covered last time” – Spend the first few minutes of class recapping. But rather than you providing the summary, have students state what they think were the main ideas.

  • As ideas are proffered, acknowledge them, expand on them, invite discussion of them as you see fit.  Be sure to correct inaccuracies as warranted.
  • Consider having them do this without consulting their notes or other materials.  Such “retrieval practice”, as it is termed in research in the learning sciences, will give them a chance to “practice remembering,” a strategy which has been shown to promote learning.

[1] See, for example Small Changes in Teachinghttp://www.chronicle.com/article/Small-Changes-in-Teaching-The/234869/

Please add your own strategies using the comment link below.