Using Exam Wrappers as a Learning Tool

Posted: September 15, 2014 by Dede deLaughter

She sits in your office, clearly fighting back tears. Pointing to the grade on her test, she says, "I've never made anything below a B before."

Sound familiar? How many of us have had similar conversations with our students? And when we probe a little further, asking, among other questions, "What will you do to prepare for the next test?", how many times do we hear, "I just need to study harder!"? One wonders, what does "study" look like in the average student's mind, and what does "harder" look like? What if doing more of what didn't work in the first place yields the same results? As Albert Einstein famously said, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

How can we turn such occasions into a genuine opportunity for our students to learn? In their book titled How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching*, Ambrose et al. provide compelling reasons to incorporate the use of exam wrappers into our curriculum. An exam wrapper is a form students fill out after receiving a graded test (or any other assessment), with the intent of guiding them through the self-correction process. The exam wrapper incorporates: reflecting on their preparation time and strategies; determining their areas of strengths and weaknesses; and identifying the types of errors they most commonly made. After students turn in their completed exam wrappers, the instructor reads through them for insight into how his/her students are studying. Then, a day or so before the next test, the professor returns the completed exam wrappers to the students in order to have a structured classroom discussion about how best to prepare for the upcoming test. This Purdue University Learning blog (Note: Link no longer works.) provides some good research on using exam wrappers as a meta-cognitive tool, and a quick Internet search of Exam Wrapper yields some good templates to adapt for your own courses. For example, this exam wrapper (Note: Link no longer works.) intentionally focuses on the main goals for using exam wrappers.

How might a guided classroom discussion go so that students can determine how best to prepare for the next test? The discussion might begin, not with a discussion of study strategies and techniques but, instead, with a conversation about their Mindset. In her pivotal work on a fixed versus growth mindset, Dr. Carol Dweck explains how our beliefs about our capacity to learn affects everything about our performance, from how we approach intellectually challenging material to how we deal with failure and criticism. Nigel Holmes has summarized Dweck's findings in his Two Mindsets graphic. In short, students with a fixed mindset view every assignment, every assessment, every learning task as a referendum on their intelligence, which often results in minimal effort, giving up, blaming, and/or avoiding challenging subject matter. "Why would I risk being seen as deficient?" is their internal message. In contrast, students with a growth mindset relish any chance to grow their brain, viewing even failures as growth opportunities. Their internal message is "I can do this, I can learn, and my devoted effort is what results in mastery."

Thankfully, Dweck's research also conclusively shows that learners with a fixed mindset can develop a growth mindset when discussions about mindset are woven into the fabric of the academic environment. One discussion will not generally result in a mindset shift. Rather, the discussions and coaching need to be an ongoing, natural part of the learning environment. Once students are trained to recognize the voice of a fixed mindset and how to reframe their beliefs, their learning dramatically improves, often resulting in the deep learning we all desire for our students. Ken Bain's book What the Best College Students Do* provides a thorough discussion of how a fixed mindset lends itself to surface or strategic learning, while a growth mindset lends itself to deep, lifelong learning.

Once students begin to embrace a growth mindset, they are then better able to determine what types of study strategies actually work for them, and they will be more inclined to experiment with different techniques in different courses. Students with a growth mindset are also better able to determine what types of study techniques are active learning strategies versus those that constitute passive, rote memorization. As we all know, memorization does not equal understanding. Let's take flash cards as an example: once students recognize what deep learning looks like because they are willing to put forth the effort to achieve genuine learning, they are better able to offer suggestions to each other for turning the passive, almost mindless, activity of looking through a stack of index cards into active learning techniques, such as making games from their index cards.

Finally, to assist students in branching out and developing a broader repertoire of study strategies that engage their learning styles, both inside and outside the classroom, consider providing them a link to a short Multiple Intelligence assessment and then encouraging students with similar Multiple Intelligences (MI) to collaborate, using their exam wrapper and their MI results, along with the Practice tab, to devise ways to work from their areas of strength.

The more our students engage in learning about their learning, and the better we are at guiding them through this process, the more they will claim ownership of their own education. We can help restore a measure of sanity to our students' learning by introducing them to exam wrappers and the benefits of doing an honest "post-mortem" on their previous academic efforts. (A self-guided "tour" through the Mindset and Multiple Intelligence self-assessments is available under the Grow Your Brain section on the UNG Learning Support website.)

*available to check out through CTLL

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