After students turned against him in a post-exam review, biology instructor Dr. Michael Moore experimented with these new approaches to improve results.
Postdoctoral Research Associate in Biology,University of Nebraska–Lincoln
PhD in Integrative Biology, MS and BA in Biology
Students did not actually throw rotten tomatoes at Michael Moore, PhD, when he first attempted post-exam reviews in his introductory biology class at Baylor University in Waco, Texas—but the impact (at least to his psyche) was similar.
The plan had looked good on paper: Moore and his co-instructor had selected the 10 most-missed questions from the test, then they began to review the correct answers in class. But the duo found that trying to manage so many voices in a stadium-seating class was counterproductive—and a little unpleasant.
“It quickly turned into students publicly arguing over and over again that they were right and that we should throw out some of the questions,” says Moore. “We were certain that if the students had had tomatoes, we would have been covered by the end of class.”
Moore soon realized that taking himself (and his co-instructor) out of the line of fire was an essential first step in getting students to focus on the real point, which was to gain a clearer understanding of the material.
To do that, he turned to an approach that was already working in class: small-group discussion. “From the very beginning [of the semester], we had set up groups of four. These students were used to working together on problems or discussing clicker-question choices,” he says. “So, for our second attempt at post-exam reviews, we still used the top 10 most-missed questions—but we instructed the students to work on them in their small groups.”
Below, Moore shares a few other tweaks he made to the process—all of which have empowered students to learn more (and collaborate more) than ever before.
“Biology students can be so competitive, and students don’t always like to help each other. There are even stories at some colleges where students hide study materials from each other. Doing post-exam reviews in small groups helps to show them that it is through community that we can learn and achieve success.”
-Michael Moore, PhD
Course description: Unifying principles common to all levels of biological organization with emphasis on cell biology, metabolism, and genetics.
[The second semester is a] continuation of the study of biological concepts with emphasis on morphology, general physiology, evolution, and ecology.
Moore’s methods for keeping post-exam reviews civil and productive
Moore notes that professors can still come under fire in exam-review sessions even if they are not doing all the talking. “You have to realize that you’re opening yourself up for criticism,” says Moore. “You need to make sure you’re in a good mental state so when you try this, you’re able to work with it.”
In addition to developing a thick skin, here are a few of his top tips for improving the experience for everyone:
1. Gain buy-in by explaining the perks of the post-exam review
In Moore’s classes, exams increase in difficulty—and importance—as the semester progresses. His post-exam review approach dovetails nicely with this, because the small-group discussion allows students to figure out how he tests when the stakes are still low. Working together, students gain insight into what types of questions he asks, how he words them, and what he considers a “good” answer. All of this enables students to fine-tune their study approach early on, so they can do better on the future (harder) exams.
2. Have students discuss why wrong answers are wrong
“We knew we wanted students to focus on not only why the right answers were right but also why the wrong answers were wrong,” says Moore. “We wanted them to understand why they chose the incorrect answer, so they could work through their own misconceptions.” This sort of discussion also enables students to teach each other by sharing a viewpoint or example that might clarify a point in a new way. Research, he adds, has shown that students can learn more from each other and retain the information better and for longer. (Moore has reviewed numerous articles on the subject and recommends those by Smith et al., Crouch et al., Cortright et al., and Knight et al.)
3. Circulate among the groups to keep conversations on track
Even though Moore wants students to learn from each other, he makes sure to keep himself in the mix while the students are working. Specifically, he watches to see that they are staying on task, keeping it civil, and drawing correct conclusions.
“It’s not just, ‘I’m just going to sit up here in the front of the classroom and wait for one of you to need my help.’ They always need your help,” he says. “So you’re going to need to be moving around, poking and prodding, really digging into what the students are digging into.”
4. Answer students’ questions with questions, not answers
Students are programmed to ask, “Is this right?” But Moore wants these budding scientists to form their own hypotheses. So he usually responds to their queries with a question and/or some words of encouragement instead. “Try to say, ‘That’s a good point—now what do you think?’” he suggests. (Additional follow-up may be needed at first to get them headed in the right direction.)
5. Get down on students’ level (literally), so they turn to each other
Moore wants students to turn to each other as resources. To foster this, he recommends that educators “mind their body language” while supervising post-exam sessions. “Sitting with students on their level or even kneeling is important,” he says. “Because any ‘super position’ is going to be seen as a position of authority, and what you really want to represent to your students is that you’re only there to help.”
6. Consider awarding points for positive collaboration
Science students can be competitive, says Moore, which means it may take longer for a certain esprit de corps to take hold during small-group work. To speed up the process—and encourage a cooperative spirit—Moore is considering awarding points for participation in his post-exam review sessions. (These sessions currently are not mandatory.) “To earn points back [toward their grade], they wouldn’t just be coming up with right answers but having to articulate those answers as a group,” he says.