Jutta Heller, PhD, shares her before-during-after exam wrappers, which help her biology students improve their test prep.
Senior Lecturer of Biology,University of Washington, Tacoma
PhD in Biophysics, BA in Molecular Biology
“Am I ready to take this exam?” This refrain echoes in the minds of many students as they scrawl their name at the top of a test paper. Though this self-reflection is usually fraught with self-doubt and worry, Jutta Heller, PhD, senior lecturer of biology at the University of Washington, wants students to turn it into something positive. By having students ask themselves this question—as well as some follow-ups—around test time, Heller helps them consider the effectiveness of their study strategies.
Heller first learned about this type of assignment—the exam wrapper—from a colleague at a STEM conference in 2017, and she has been using a slightly modified version ever since. Unlike some exam wrappers, which include reflections before and after the test, Heller’s also involves some self-reflection during the test. By the time all three stages are complete, students will have reflected on what factors (good and bad) affected their studying, what grade they expect to receive, and finally, whether they want to tweak their test-prep approach in the future.
“I felt this was a really neat way for me to assess more than just students’ performance on an exam,” Heller explains, when asked for her rationale for beginning to use exam wrappers. “It would help me, I thought, but it would also help the students, because they’re thinking about what they did to prepare for this exam and, more explicitly, ‘What might be distracting me?’ and ‘Why did I get that wrong?’ and ‘What can I do differently?’”
Read on to learn the specifics of how Heller puts each stage of the exam wrapper into practice.
“A lot of students are so focused on ‘I have to read the text! I have to highlight all the important stuff!’ I think exam wrappers are beneficial because they help students realize, ‘Oh! I can actually do other things to prepare for this test in addition to reading the text.”
-Jutta Heller, PhD
Course: TBIOL 130 Introduction to Biology II
Course description: This course covers molecular and cellular biology, including basic chemistry, metabolism, cell structure and function, and the application of molecular techniques to environmental studies.
Heller’s 3-stage approach to exam wrappers
Heller’s exam wrapper is a one-page questionnaire that she presents as the front page of the midterm and final tests. On the first day of class, she explains the logic behind the method, as well as the three-step process involved (she also passes around a consent form, as student participation sis voluntary). Heller’s end goal: to show students that she sees them as college-level achievers who can mindfully create a study plan that works for them.
Here is an example of what the wrapper looks like:
Below, Heller outlines how she implements the exam wrapper, which provides an official avenue for assessing how students are doing.
Before the exam: Ask students which study strategies they tried
The part of the wrapper students complete just before the exam has them consider what percentage grade they expect to receive and why. It also asks how much time they spent studying overall. Then students rank 12 study strategies, filling in the percentage of time they spent using each one. (The answer to some may be 0%.)
These include reading, going to class, taking notes in class, reviewing notes, creating a personal study guide, reviewing the study guide, receiving tutoring, attending a study group, asking Heller for help/clarification, reviewing Heller’s PowerPoints, studying from flash cards, and solving practice problems. (They can also write in any other techniques they used, such as watching YouTube videos.)
“This shows students that they can engage with the material in a number of different ways. Students see that, ‘Hey, I could be doing all of these things, but I only ended up reading and highlighting the textbook,” says Heller. “It’s beneficial for them to realize that there are other ways of studying and preparing, even if they’ve only seen this list and haven’t actually done any of them.”
During the exam: Ask students about their testing experience
At a time of their choosing during the exam, students again assess how well they think they will do on the test (and why). By this point, students have had a chance to see what the test contains and its level of difficulty, which may prompt a more sober prediction of their grade.
The students are also asked to choose how many (if any) of nine environmental and personal factors might be affecting their test-taking performance. These include hunger, fatigue, daydreaming, panic/anxiety, personal issues, mental block, noise, and the temperature of the room. She also asks here if they are experiencing “test format confusion” and allows them to share any other influencing factors. This part of the assessment can help Heller fine-tune the test in the future, as well as point her to specific issues that individual students are facing.
After the exam: Ask students to reflect on how things turned out
Just before turning in the exam, Heller asks students one more time to estimate the grade they think they will get, and to share the reasons why they think they will score well or not so well.
There is also a final follow-up: Once the exams have been graded, Heller returns them to students and asks for one last round of self-assessment. At this point, Heller presents a series of more pointed questions that include how students felt when they first saw their grade (and why), as well as why they think received the grade they did. She also asks, “Which questions had you changed from the right answer to the wrong answer?” and “How many questions did you mistakenly mark with the wrong letter?”
Finally, she asks for at least three things the students will do differently in preparing for the next exam—and what she could do differently to support them in their learning and test preparations.
She also (verbally) reminds them about her drop-in office hours, tutor availability, and campus counseling services. “I want to know what I could be doing to help them,” she says. “I am not a professional in terms of counseling, but I have two ears to listen with. I just want to make sure they’re doing OK.”