Encouraging Critical Thinking through Exam Preparation

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Sarah Macdonald, Sociology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2008

Problem: While teaching Sociology 5: Evaluation of Evidence, I encountered a problem that is not unique: how, as GSIs, can we prepare our students for challenging final exams without teaching exclusively to the exam? At the beginning of the semester my students seemed most concerned with memorizing terms and remembering which articles they were associated with. This strategy, I realized, would not only earn them less than average grades on the final exam, but would make it difficult for them to use the concepts that they were learning to think critically about the examples of social scientific research that the professor provided. In response to this issue, I developed a strategy that used practice essays and discussion to prepare students for the final exam, while also encouraging them to develop critical thinking skills to help them to evaluate social scientific research.

Strategy: Throughout the semester I administered three full-length practice essays that asked students to evaluate the methodological soundness of readings using concepts from the class. Early on in the semester students completed the first practice essay. I graded the essay, handed it back and then led a discussion where students volunteered their answers to the question. Immediately following the discussion, I distributed a detailed rubric with possible answers to the questions that I had used to grade the essays. My students were extremely surprised by the high level of expectations that the professor had for the essays, based on the rubric that I distributed. This exercise set the tone for my discussion sections for the rest of the semester. During the following weeks and throughout the rest of the semester, I encouraged students to think of possible essay questions related to the reading and we talked through potential ways of answering those questions during section. About halfway through the semester I administered the second practice essay and explained to students that I would not provide answers to this essay question; rather, students would work collaboratively to develop their own rubric. The answers that students provided on their second and third practice essays were significantly better than their first essays and after students completed these essays we had lively discussions where students came up with their own criteria for good answers. Keeping the first rubric in mind, my students provided engaging and intelligent critiques of the reading and made exhaustive lists of possible answers to the questions.

Part of the reason that this strategy was so effective was that my students were extremely motivated to do well on the high stakes final exam and thus put forth significant effort in class discussions about essays. While framing our discussions of readings as preparation for the final exam encouraged student participation, it also resulted in students developing their critical thinking skills throughout the semester. At the beginning of the semester, students expressed frustration when I asked them to evaluate the readings using the concepts that we had learned about, but by the end of the semester students were able to critically apply concepts across the different readings.

Assessment: When I asked students to complete a short midterm evaluation of the class, several students pointed out the usefulness of the practice essays. Similarly, my final evaluations reflected students’ satisfaction with our class discussions. The effectiveness of this technique is also evident in my students performance on the final exam; on average, my students performed extremely well. I was also pleased to see that several students who began the semester with significant anxiety about the exam earned high grades. Finally, several students emailed me at the end of the semester to express their enthusiasm for the techniques I used to help prepare them for the final exam; one student remarked, “Thanks so much for all your preparation help for the final. I went into it feeling prepared and like I knew what I was doing,” while another commented, “Your hard work showed and I think we were drastically more prepared than a lot of other people I knew in the class.”