How I prepare my students to write university exams…

How I prepare my students to write university exams…

I wanted to comment on your "Midterms can be a shock" article from the December 2017/January 2018 issue since it was particularly applicable to what was happening in my two sections of Grade 12 University Advanced Functions. Students take this course only if they are planning to follow up with Calculus, or they specifically need it for a math/science related post-secondary degree. This creates a great deal of stress for them.

At the start of the semester, when I'm detailing the structure of the course, I explain that the course will focus heavily on tests, as opposed to quizzes and assignments (which is what students are probably used to). They inevitably groan at this, but then I lay out my reasoning — essentially what you have said in your article, that university assessment is based almost entirely on tests/exams, especially in STEM courses.  These exams will be a great deal more complex than what they have seen in high school.

I let them know that, in university, it is not uncommon to have your entire mark made up of one midterm exam worth 30% and one final exam worth 70%. I impress upon them the importance of work habits and test-writing skills since these more than anything will be what get them through university. To address this, I tried something new this semester, which seems to have helped some students.

Specifically, I pointed to the way in which students prepare for a test. Typically, they will take whatever review material I have provided to them and go home and work through it over the course of several days, coming in to check their answers as they go along. While this is fine, it does not model test-writing in the slightest.

I sometimes will give them previous tests to look through, and they will again take them home, try a question or two, check the answers, and work through it at their own pace. Finally, 3 or 4 hours later, they have completed the practice test and feel comfortable that they know enough to take the real test.

Except the real test does not grant 3 or 4 hours, and it has no answers to check along the way.

Instead, I have been encouraging them to allow themselves to get stuck — to resist checking the answers right away, and then working backwards to figure out how to get there. This will not be available on a test or exam, and does not model good test-writing habits. I have also been giving them practice tests and encouraging them to treat them like a real test. Give themselves an hour to complete it, with no resources, and see how they do.

Inevitably, the students struggle and complain, but this immediately identifies a problem with timing and test-writing skills. And if we can pinpoint what, exactly, caused the student difficulty, we can address that weakness and try to avoid it in the future.

In one case, I actually set up a mock test period, two days before the real test, where students came in and received the practice test, with one full period to complete it. They then brought their attempt back to class the following day, where we took up all the solutions as a group and discussed where they were struggling. Had they spent too long on one question, and not another? Had they misread something or glossed over an important detail? We tried to identify WHY they had struggled, so they could try to avoid that struggle next time.

Many students felt that this helped, and I think some have continued the practice for subsequent tests.

Your article hit this on the head, and I hope to share some of your insights with my students in light of a particularly rough test yesterday, which emphasized (as your article points out) a focus on questions requiring a broader application of higher understanding. Many students had significant struggles with this test, but sadly it is representative of what they will encounter next year in university.

And I always tell the students (and their parents) that if this is a lesson they need to learn — work habits, test-writing — then it is better to learn it NOW (while the tax payers are paying for their education) rather than later, when they are on the hook for $20,000+ in student debt!