When Ashley Jabs, MS, saw her anatomy students struggle with exams the way she once did, she made test-taking strategies part of the curriculum.
Instructor of Anatomy, Tulsa Community College, OK
MS in Biology, BS in Medical Sciences
When Ashley Jabs was a teenager, she dreamed of becoming a doctor. “I really thought that was in the cards for me,” she says. “But it turns out that it wasn’t.” Jabs feels that part of the reason she did not pursue medical school was because she struggled with testing—and passing the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is an essential step in becoming a physician.
Today Jabs, as an anatomy instructor at Tulsa Community College in Oklahoma, feels fortunate to help students in a medical-field subject. And she has found a way to turn her testing weakness as a student into one of her greatest strengths as a teacher: After dissecting numerous exam questions and investigating effective study strategies, Jabs has made effective test-taking a foundational element of her Human Anatomy and Physiology course.
In fact, at the beginning of the semester, Jabs does not dive into anatomy terms but spends part of the first two labs reviewing test-taking skills. This involves discussing how multiple choice questions are written, how standardized tests are organized, and how to use critical thinking skills to choose an answer. She also spends part of the lab following each exam on these topics. Though this does take a bit of time away from her instruction on course content, she feels it is time well spent: Jabs has seen improvements in students’ test-taking awareness—and test results—almost immediately. “If you take the time to go over why students miss questions, they typically learn from their mistakes,” she explains. “So I feel the time is essential here.”
Why do students need help with standardized testing?
Because the majority of Jabs’s students are pre-nursing or pre-med, they will have to take standardized tests in their upcoming academic careers. However, many suffer greatly from test anxiety, and they lack basic test-taking skills. “Students walk in the door thinking they know how to take a standardized exam, and they don’t,” Jabs says. “They either skim the choices too quickly or they overanalyze every question and option.”
She says that many students who take multiple choice exams cannot decipher the differences between answer choices because they are written so similarly. That, she says, is on purpose—and with good reason. As their careers will involve life-and-death decisions, they will need to know the exact answers—not just make a good guess.
Students are used to memorizing definitions and worksheets for exams that Jabs has dubbed “verbatim exams.” These simply require students to regurgitate exactly what they have memorized, which does not require them to think for themselves (as they will also have to do in the field). She wants students to be able to score well on their standardized tests, but she also wants to ensure that they know the applications of the terms to real-life situations.
“Normally, we lose about 25% of students during a semester in which they take Human Anatomy and Physiology ... due to the challenging content and tough exams. In my classes, the percentage is maybe 10%—much lower than the average. That leads me to believe my approach is working.”— Ashley Jabs, MS
Course: BIOL 1314 Human Anatomy and Physiology
Course description: An introduction to the basic principles of the structure and function of the human body. A beginning course designed to emphasize the integration of all body systems. Designed for students in Allied Health programs.
See resources shared by Ashley Jabs, MSSee materials
Lesson: Teaching students how to take a multiple choice test
While not all standardized tests are multiple choice, Jabs spends a significant amount of time talking about that format in her classes. “Those are the tests students struggle with the most,” she says. Instructors looking to help improve their students’ test-taking skills can learn from Jabs’s best practices, outlined below.
Kick off the semester with an exam
In the first lab class, Jabs has the students take a practice exam. Though many are aghast at the thought, she quickly puts their minds at ease. She explains that the eight questions on the mini-exam will be low-level, basic biology that she knows students have studied previously. And she tells them that, though she wants them to take it seriously, this exam will not be graded.
Jabs also lets them know that she models her exams on the standardized tests they will have to take down the road. “From the first class, they start getting a comfort level for what it will look like when they take the real thing,” she explains.
Review the results as a group
After the students have finished the mini-exam, Jabs projects the questions and potential answers onto a big screen at the front of the room. First, she asks students for a show of hands of who voted for each answer.
Next, she reviews the exam question by question, answer by answer, asking students why they chose the answer they did. This often results in a spirited discussion that reveals critical thinking processes. It also shows students how easy it is to trip up, even on “easy” questions. She tells them, “If the multiple choice format seems easy, think again.” She does a similar review after the first real exam of the semester, spending time discussing questions and answers—particularly wrong answers, so students can understand what tripped them up.
Have them show their (mental) work
Jabs wanted a window into the thought processes behind students’ individual answers. To that end, she encourages students to “write all over” her exams, explaining their thoughts in words and doodles. “Writing about and drawing concepts is a tangible tool for students to formulate and organize their thoughts. If they’re confused about a question, analyzing it on paper can help them clarify their thoughts,” she says. “It also stimulates memory recall.”
The exercise also helps Jabs see where students need help, and why. If the student did not perform well, she can assess the thought patterns to see whether they were on the right track—or nowhere close.
Ease test anxiety with empathy
Jabs is aware that, in spite of these exercises, test-taking itself can remain a source of anxiety for many students. So she provides them with plenty of encouragement and support throughout the semester. “I want to help them relax before they take the exam,” she says. “So I send out encouraging emails the night before, saying, ‘You can do this’ and ‘I know you’re studying hard.’” She also reminds them that they can ask her anything at any time that night, and she will respond. “Students tell me they are so thankful for this extra attention,” says Jabs. “And I see a huge positive difference in their attitudes toward school, the topic, their teacher, and test-taking.”
Jabs says that her instruction may be keeping more at-risk students in school by helping them be better prepared for exams. “Normally, we lose about 25% of students during a semester in which they take Human Anatomy and Physiology,” Jabs says. “They drop out of this course especially due to the challenging content and tough exams. In my classes, the percentage is maybe 10%, much lower than the average. That leads me to believe my approach is working.”
Jabs’s students are thankful that she was not such a great test-taker—and, frankly, so is she, since she loves her current career. Sometimes, she notes, we may not have all the answers, but things have a way of working out anyway.