How Building in Time for Exam Review Supports Advances in Student Learning

Students learn a lot from dissecting an exam they've already taken and then trying again. (spukkato/iStock)

By Kendal Rolley

A teary-eyed student approached me after class asking me to help her understand the grade she had received on a piece of writing. We discussed what she could do next time to achieve a higher grade, and I was pleased that in just 30 minutes her confidence increased and she felt more able to tackle the next writing assignment. But who has 30 minutes for every student? I started wondering how I could embed that type of coaching into the fabric of my class, so every student could make great improvements in their writing.

Too often, exams or essays are seen as the end goal of teaching. After a busy period of learning, students sit down, fill in their papers and hand them in. We mark them, grade them and hand them back. But many of us don’t realize that assessment itself provides opportunities for learning and growth.

"Reflective practice" is a buzzy phrase in education that is, in reality, a concept quite complicated to implement. I’ve found that making space in my busy classroom schedule to do post-exam reviews more than pays off. The simple fact is, students want to do well on tests. With the right approach, this basic fact can form a foundation for a process that not only leads to subject‐specific improvement, but teaches students valuable transferable skills in critical thinking and meaningful self‐reflection.

None of these suggestions on how to facilitate reflective practice will work unless you dedicate a lesson or two to revisiting exam responses in a meaningful and reflective way. I have used this feedback strategy with writing tasks and exams in my Grade 7 English Language Arts classes, and found it works well for both. Whole‐class review sessions that use a group discussion‐based approach allow students to first express opinions in a more comfortable setting, seek consensus among their group and feel confident presenting findings to the whole class. This is only possible if the teacher has constructed a positive learning environment in their classroom.

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Discuss the task. Ask students how easy or hard they perceived the assessment to be. Was it a fair test of what has been taught? Why / Why not? Ask students to recall particularly challenging elements of the exam. Why were these so difficult? What could have been done to better help prepare for them? You should plan ahead here: Have some sections in mind that you’d like students to improve on, so if students aren’t readily supplying answers, you can guide them toward areas you have identified.

Ease students into the rewriting process. Deconstruct specific questions/sections with low learner outcomes, and provide scaffolded versions of these tasks. For example, you could provide an exemplar response, but remove the beginning, middle or end and let students work in groups to create a response to a small, and therefore more manageable section. This sort of task can be repeated endlessly. It builds student confidence and allows them to understand task structure in a clearer way.

Establish a growth mindset. Teachers are familiar with the array of student reactions to exam results. Some students may have long resigned themselves to achieving low exam scores, and many of us, as compassionate beings, will ache to comfort students we know have done their best, but haven’t secured a grade that reflects their passion and enthusiasm for our subject. There’s a better way to help them than a metaphorical pat on the back. Providing a safe and supportive environment for them to reflect and communicate to us why they struggled provides valuable insight into how we might improve our teaching. Reminding ourselves, and our students, to have a growth mindset makes reflective practice more worthwhile.

Insist on positive language from students throughout the review session. That may seem unrealistic. However, it is important because as students review an exam piece by piece, they will realize they didn’t hit the mark on certain questions. For example, insist students use phrases like "I should have" or "next time I will" rather than "I didn’t." Language shapes mindset, and insisting that students see these sessions as a positive and constructive process will lead to a more rewarding process and stave off defeatist attitudes.

Wait to provide scores / exam papers until the proper context has been given. Providing blank exam copies will allow students to follow along and reflect on how they answered the first time. As you scaffold the questions further, they’ll compare this to how they could have answered. And, students are more likely to remain concentrated on the task if they don’t receive their graded exams until the end of the review session.

Provide examples, but adapt them. While it can be helpful to show students examples of stellar work, sometimes sample responses can intimidate students who are obviously working at a lower level. Some may feel that the “full credit” response is too far out of their reach and despair. One way to approach this dilemma with these students is to scale down the language (vocabulary, sentence length, etc.) used in the sample until it still meets standards, but in a way that students perceive to be a step or two, rather than a staircase, higher than what they have produced.

This leads into encouraging students to set Specific Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-specific (S.M.A.R.T.) goals before they see their exam grade, with an emphasis on setting goals that are realistic. An example of a S.M.A.R.T. goal would be “I want to spend at least 30 minutes writing and reviewing the next paragraph I write for homework.”

It’s part of our job as teachers to help students see their academic growth as a process, one full of small steps forward and perhaps even a few backward. If students have realistic expectations for their own growth, they’re more likely to persist. But setting realistic, achievable goals doesn’t always come naturally to young people. If students view their progress as being not enough, it can unravel the whole self‐reflection process the next time they receive exam scores.

Make it lighthearted. In order to establish a healthy attitude in students toward failure and success, failure needs to be normalized, to an extent. It needs also to be put in the proper context of using this failure as an example of subsequent growth. A teacher may choose, if good rapport has been developed with the class, to share a personal experience that students can relate to, and show that they, even as an authority figure, have learned from failure. This is often more effective if the personal story is humorous, especially if the cohort in question has a tendency (due to intrinsic or extrinsic factors) to lean towards a doom and gloom reaction to low exam / task scores.

At the end of the session comes the most important question, and the most important task. Knowing what you know now, do you think you could try this again and achieve a better result? If you’ve held a successful review session, the answer will almost universally be "Yes." For students who get upset about exam scores, the question “Is there any point in getting upset if you know that you could do it again and achieve more highly?” acts as a final reminder to maintain a positive attitude and growth mindset. At this point, students can be given their returned and graded assessment, have a chance to discuss any points they don’t understand, and then begin their rewrite.

Why after, and not before? Ideally, a teacher can host a review session using some of these same principles before students take the exam. However, to many students, sitting exams is a mystifying and daunting experience. I used to provide rubrics before and during writing tasks so that students could self-assess, but soon realized many learners found the rubrics confusing and too abstract. Taking the pressure off by facilitating these sessions afterward can be a more constructive experience. It builds a class community oriented toward growth, and gives students concrete experiences of improvement that they can build upon.

I sat down with some of my Grade 7 Language Arts students to ask their honest opinions of the exam feedback sessions and whether they found them helpful. I focused on the question: What if we’d done something similar before the exam?

“I think it’s good to do it afterwards,” said one boy, “it makes me concentrate on what you say, because I’m trying to work out what score I got on the exam!” Another student said she also liked doing it this way. “I think it’s good to try to write it ourselves first, and get experience -- it can feel too complicated when we are given all the information at the start.”

One of my students, who scored around 30 percent on her short essay describing character motives in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, rewrote the essay, scoring closer to 70 percent almost immediately following the session. I teach at an international school in Vietnam; English is a second or third language for most of my students. Language is often a barrier to higher achievement, but I quickly discovered in this case the largest barrier was that she did not understand the expectations of the task.

While I don’t grade rewritten tasks, I do use them as formative assessment. They not only give me a better sense of what my students have learned, but I’ve noticed they feel more confident after seeing the results of the rewrite. While not all students saw such dramatic gains, typical results were still much higher on average. My students’ growth has convinced me to continue using this strategy.

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Kendal Rolley is the English coordinator of a bilingual K-12 school in Hanoi, Vietnam. He conducts research on language policy and motivation in language learning, and supports TEFL professionals in the development of their classroom practice.

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