Conquering ‘Forty Percent of the Grade’: Interactive Strategies for Helping Students Prepare for Comprehensive Final Exams

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Wendy Sinek, Political Science

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2006

“But it’s 40% of the grade!” First-year Political Science students commonly raise this concern about the comprehensive final exam often given at the end of introductory survey courses. Many are simply unsure about how to study for cumulative exams. Further, commonly recommended approaches (such as reading carefully and taking notes) tend to preference visual learners. Students who learn best by talking through their ideas and actively participating are often at a disadvantage and struggle with identifying strategies that work for them. Preparation often becomes an anxiety-provoking, last-minute cram session filled with more stress and caffeine than actual learning. In response, I have developed four strategies to help students of all learning styles identify key concepts, relate them to one another, and develop critical essay arguments during the course of the final exam.

I employ three of my strategies as I teach section. First, I administer a “pop quiz with no penalty” each week. The answer to the question posed, which is drawn from the previous week’s material, is not graded (thus alleviating test anxiety). However, I privately email individuals who get the answer wrong with instructions on where to find the correct information, and I encourage them to review. This method also allows me to identify areas of student confusion that I can then spend a few minutes reviewing in the subsequent section. The pop quiz questions connect key themes across the course, and give students an idea of what types of issues might appear on the final exam. Kinesthetic learners also appreciate the small break in routine, since the quiz can appear at any time during section. Second, I reserve the last five minutes of each section for “key concept brainstorming.” Rather than my dictating what we should review, however, the class takes ownership of the material by deciding on the terms, authors, and concepts that are most important. Third, near the end of the semester I have my students play “Political Challenge,” an interactive game that I designed to help students review for the final exam. During the course of the game, teams debate possible approaches to a question, and then explain the material in their own words in order to earn points. Harder questions are not only worth more points, they also require more active participation, such as staging a mini role-play or debate. In this way, auditory and kinesthetic learners have an opportunity to engage the material in a way that is absent from traditional exam review sessions.

Finally, I advocate that my students experiment on their own with different approaches to reviewing the evolving list of key ideas that we develop throughout the semester. For instance, I suggest that students make flash cards of the key concepts and terms we identify. I encourage them to review both silently and out loud, while seated in one place and while moving around; students might even devote a particular place to each theme (i.e. studying modernization theory in the kitchen, and then moving to the living room to learn dependency theory.) I also suggest that students try tape-recording lecture, then listening to it in two different ways — once while going over their notes, and once while doing something active (such as walking on a treadmill) — to see if either approach enhances their comprehension. By introducing different at-home study techniques to complement in-section activities, students develop a toolkit of study strategies that work well with their own preferred learning style.

Personal observation and conversations with students in office hours indicate that students believe these strategies help them prepare for exams. Nonetheless, to assess more objectively whether they help students integrate concepts throughout the course, I incorporate GSI-blind evaluations throughout the semester. After the midterm, I ask students to identify the technique that most helped them prepare, and “reviewing pop quiz” questions and making “key terms flashcards” are routinely named. In fact, students who did not use these strategies have frequently commented that they wish they had! In terms of the review game, student evaluations are consistently favorable. Out of 103 students for whom I have served as GSI in three different courses during the last two years, 94 stated that the game increased their knowledge of key concepts, helped them identify areas they needed to review, and that they would recommend the game to a friend over traditional question-and-answer review sessions. Moreover, the overwhelmingly positive response indicates that the game appears to be effective for students across learning styles. I am convinced that these four interactive strategies help my students develop their own techniques to master course material in a way that matches their individual learning style, increases their comprehension, and thereby reduces 40% of the grade exam-day anxiety.