It’s a popular phrase this time of year. My students know the routine when they see me. Before either of us has had the opportunity to sit down, I look over and calmly ask, “Did you get back any graded papers or exams since our last class?” Some have even become adept at beating me to the proverbial punch, and immediately blurting out, “So, I got my test back, and…,” before I can say a word.
In my last essay, Turning Failure into an Opportunity for Success, I highlighted that one of the attributes of a successful person is a consistent inspection and examination of their actions, thought processes, and the outcomes of their actions, good or bad. It is a very meaningful exercise, and helps whittle down what works, what needs to be fixed, and what needs to be jettisoned. The process is an immensely important study skill when a student gets back graded or commented upon work, as it is another chance to learn and improve.
And, since we are discussing chemistry, physics, and mathematics courses, everything is cumulative, so if you do not learn a skill or concept at time A, it will come back and haunt you at time B. In fairness, this is applicable to any discipline (one’s writing skills come to mind…)
The process I outline below looks deceptively lengthy and cumbersome. Successful students have this kind of system built into what they already do that it is a naturally part of their studying, does not take a significant amount of time, and has an extremely high “return on investment,” not only for the exam and the material covered, but also over the entire course, and future courses that depend on the material learned.
- Look over the exam when you get it back in class. Part of the reason for this suggestion is to make sure that there are not any glaring errors (for example, a page was not graded, or the points were not added up correctly). Another part is to assuage any panic that may set in because of the grade itself. Remember, a grade by itself means nothing, and always requires context. After you look it over, put the exam aside; there’s nothing that can be done at that moment in time, so there is absolutely no reason to lose focus and not be active in class that day.
- Redo the entire exam. Outside of class, during one of your study blocks (see: Starting the Academic Year Right), sit down with the exam, and rework it in its entirely, without the pressure of a time limit, and using your textbook, class notes, and handouts. You will surprise yourself with how many questions you will be answer on your own that you did not on the exam! A common error on exams is that a student did not actually read the questions correctly, costing themselves a significant number of points! If you are short on time, you can always just work on the questions that you answered incorrectly; the danger, though, is that it may put the question out of context, and lose the opportunity to reinforce the good skills that you demonstrated during the exam.
- Go through the solutions key. This is a valuable exercise in two ways. First, you are able to go through the questions that you did not answer correctly, and determine both how to solve the question correctly (another opportunity to learn!), or exactly the part of the solution that you do not understand, and need to ask about. A second benefit is that, though you may have solved a question correctly, you can either validate what you did, or see a different approach that may be more efficient, or highlight skills and technique that you may not thought of. Never shrug off a new way of solving a problem, or answering a question; you deny yourself the opportunity to discover a new way to think, or a new connection!
- Generate a list of questions. Once you have gone through the exam yourself, and reviewed the solutions key, you will be in the best position to generate a list of targeted, developed, and useful questions for your teacher, tutor, peers, or other resources. The questions have organically grown out of your own studying, so that will be more impactful, meaningful, and supportive of what you are doing.
- Meet with your teacher, professor, tutor, or fellow students. Bring your questions, and don’t leave until you understand everything completely, and feel confident that you can solve the problems or answer the question. Take copious notes! This is a valuable opportunity for both players, teacher and student, and because you have reviewed your exam twice now, and have powerful questions, you will benefit ten-fold over any run-of-the-mill extra help session.
- Redo the entire exam again. This I cannot stress enough. A self-diagnostic is imperative to see how effective your meeting was with your teacher/tutor, and if your questions were what you actually needed. This is an opportunity to practice, and reinforce, what you have learned from all of your hard studying. And yes, I mean the entire exam – don’t neglect the questions you answered correctly. Perhaps an alternative solution that you saw in the solutions key is worth trying? Reinforce what you know and did well, so that it becomes habit, and you do not forget!
- Highlight particular topics or skills that you still need more work on. Finally, we have beaten the exam into the ground, and we should put it away for a while. At this point, you have redone the exam three times, and looked over it another two times. You know where you are weakest, what skills you are shaky on, what concepts you need to continue thinking about, and what reactions you need to commit to memory. Incorporate consistent review of those topics into your study time (again, see:Starting the Academic Year Right).
Always feel free to repeat any of these steps as you need to, especially visiting your teacher or tutor to have all of your questions answered – it is why they are there!
Finally, be proud of yourself. You worked your posterior off learning from the exam. It will pay off dividends!