Tips on Teaching

Making Exams More Meaningful for Students

by Eric Royer, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Exams are a common way to assess and evaluate student learning. Despite this, instructors often experience a mismatch between their expectations and individual student outcomes, with some students not performing as expected or others feeling unprepared to demonstrate the type of learning that’s expected of them. This problem is then magnified when exams are used in high-stakes formats, possibly creating barriers to meaningful student learning.

Exams require intentional design choices to allow students to act on and demonstrate their learning, as envisioned in the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm. Careful consideration needs to be given to learning outcomes, how expectations are formulated and conveyed to students, and exam options that give students an opportunity to demonstrate their learning in authentic ways, moving beyond rote memorization to making connections between new knowledge learned and past experiences.

Making exams more meaningful may sound difficult, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. It could entail choosing different question types that better measure specific learning outcomes. It might involve giving students more opportunities for memory recall or practice with specific applications leading up to an exam. Or, students could be provided with more options for demonstrating their learning of specific knowledge or skills in ways that are authentic and learner-specific.

Align exams with course learning outcomes

Start by focusing on what you want students to know and be able to do in your course, then design your exams to verify whether students can actually do these things (Fink, 2003). This way exams are not an isolated event in the learning process and using this backward course design approach will help you identify the types of questions you adopt to evaluate learning. If an exam is being used to verify whether “students can apply fundamental purification methods used in organic chemistry,” it may not make sense to include only multiple-choice or true/false questions since these question types lend more toward measuring whether a student can recall (and memorize) concepts. Instead, you may find short-answer, essay, problem-set, or demonstration-based questions are better measures.

Make exam expectations public and transparent

Be sure students know what to expect and what types of learning, skills, attributes, and knowledge they’ll be expected to demonstrate. Telling them the composition of an exam beforehand, what they can and cannot use during that exam, or what specific learning outcome(s) an exam is evaluating eliminates student guess work and helps them focus their time and energy in practical and productive ways. This is particularly important now, with students requiring additional flexibility and exams being administered in alternative formats to account for students needing to miss class or make-up exams due to pandemic restrictions. Can students use their notes? A textbook? Can they work with their classmates?

Giving students options for demonstrating their learning on exams

While exams allow instructors to verify student learning, they’re also excellent vehicles for allowing students to demonstrate this learning, often in varied ways. This might come in the form of giving students options for completing a task or question on an exam, such as working through a problem-set using text and annotations or by recording a video or audio file of them doing the same thing. It could come in the form of giving students options for selecting the questions they respond to when answering short-answer or essay-based questions. You can also consider case study applications, open-ended questions, or even questions generated by students that allow them to connect their learning to real-world examples, their individual contexts, or topics of interest to them in your course.

Inclusive design choices are essential for equitable learning

Multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, and true/false questions are common question types, yet they can privilege certain types of students and skill sets over others. Students who’ve benefited from test-taking coaches or college preparation classes in the past are more likely to succeed on exams comprised of these question types versus first-generation students who don’t know how to navigate approaching their instructor for help or accessing campus resources available to them (Sathy and Hogan, 2019). Word choice, language, and sentence structure can also be culturally sensitive. Long questions or tricky wording may disadvantage international students who need to spend more time focusing on what’s written in a question, which takes time away from their ability to apply and demonstrate their learning in an equitable manner.

Practice, practice, practice

Students need ample opportunities to recall information and practice desired skills leading up to an exam. This might come in the form of class “entry tickets” that ask students to recall a topic or debate in a prior class and then connect it to a topic you’re discussing on a given day. This can also come in the form of learning activities (e.g., group work, peer review assignments, case study analyses) or low-stakes, formative quizzes that give students an opportunity to practice, evaluate, and receive feedback about their learning. All provide critical windows into their learning so they can determine what’s working, what makes sense, and ways to improve their learning strategies (McGuire, 2015). More importantly, they won’t find themselves in a situation where they’re struggling to perform a certain task or skill for the first time while being graded on their performance.

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Fink, D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

McGuire, S.Y. (2015). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Sathy, V. and K. Hogan. (2019). How to make your teaching more inclusive: Advice guide. Chronicle of Education.