Earlier in this module we discussed strategies for taking tests and for reducing the anxiety that can accompany them. We also touched on some reasons why tests are such a central part of the educational experience: namely, they yield important learning data that instructors and administrators can use to improve teaching and education. You may be thinking, "Well, I'm glad to help out and provide my valuable 'learning data,' but what about me? Tests still seem like a cruel exercise designed to torment students and stress them out."
In this section we offer a response to that thought: believe it or not, testing benefits you, too. Consider the following:
You may learn more when you take a test than when you study for it or are just taught the material. For example, if you are asked to learn five formulas for a math test, you will likely remember the three formulas you are actually tested on better than the others.
When you are tested—especially often—it encourages you to study more and procrastinate less.
The more you retrieve information, as you do during a test or quiz, the more likely you are to retain it in the long run.
Taking a test helps your brain organize knowledge better, and that helps you retrieve the knowledge more efficiently.
So, testing is not just a method of measuring how much you know (or torturing you). It can actually help you learn. In addition, the results of a test—even when you don't do very well—can also enhance your learning in valuable ways.
Learning from Mistakes
Two of the most important messages that students hear from teachers is “Don’t be afraid to fail” and "Learn from your mistakes—yours, mine, and ours.” The following TedEd talk explores these familiar ideas. The speaker, Diana Laufenberg, makes the case for why learning through experience, feeling empowered, and embracing failure are all so important to students—so much more so than just going to school to get information. You can download a transcript of the video here.
The idea of "learning from one's mistakes" seems straightforward enough . . . but how does one actually do it? After all, who isn't disappointed to get a low grade on anything—a test, a quiz, a paper, a project? We all want to do well. Consider the following college students evaluating their own performance:
I recently took a general biology exam and I was so certain that I got all questions right—that I got a 100 percent on the exam. Then I found out this morning that I got a 94 percent! And what annoys me more than the grade is the fact that my mistakes were dumb. Why did I make dumb mistakes? The tests are timed and I don’t have much time to check my answers.
I’m so mad at myself. I've tried everything, I come back to look at the answer after I've completed the rest of the test. I go over the answers carefully. It seems as though no matter what I do I can't catch my mistakes. I just did it on an accounting test. I missed one question because I didn't notice the answer was "All of the above." I have the same problem in another class.
At times we can be hard on ourselves, especially if we feel we could have done better. Learning from mistakes takes practice and reinforcement. As Diana Laufenberg pointed out in her Ted Talk, mistakes can be one of the most important events that happen in a classroom, because they tell you where you need to focus next.
After you get over the disappointment of making a mistake in the first place, the next step is to home in on why you made it. That's the learning opportunity. Below are some tips for following up on—and addressing—a range of errors that students commonly make on exams and other assessments.
Read all directions slowly and carefully. Underline or highlight key words so that you affirm your clear understanding.
I didn’t read the question properly.
Sometimes the brain sees what it wants to see rather than what is actually written or presented. This can happen if you didn’t study the right material or if you wanted to answer a question that isn’t quite the question you are being asked. If you are in a high-pressure situation, mistakes can be all the more an issue. Read each question thoroughly, then read it again. Underline or highlight key words.
I was careless.
Watch carefully for simple mistakes as you work each problem. Save time to review each problem step-by-step. Check again before you submit.
I just didn’t understand.
Go back to your study materials, textbook, or media and learn why you missed the problems. Talk with your instructor.
I knew the concept but I didn’t apply it properly to the problem.
When you are studying, practice predicting the type of problems that will be on the test. Ask in advance.
I messed up on the last part of the test. This seems to be a recurring problem.
If you find that you consistently miss more questions in a certain part of a test, use your remaining test time to review that part of the test first.
I didn’t complete the full problem.
When you review your test before turning it in, review the last step of a problem first. When the last steps are checked, then you can do a review of the full test.
I changed a few test answers from the correct ones to incorrect ones.
If you find this happening regularly, try not to second-guess yourself. You can write on your test “Don’t change answers.” Only change answers if you have double-checked and if you can prove to yourself that the changed answer is correct.
I got stuck on one problem and spent too much time on it.
Set a time limit for each problem before moving to the next one.
I have a tendency to rush through the easiest part of the test, and then I make silly errors.
After finishing the test, review the easy problems first, then review the harder problems. But do try to answer the easiest questions first; this way you get good points right off the bat, which can also increase your confidence. Answer trickier questions after the easier ones.
I had the correct answer on my scratch sheet but I copied it wrong onto the test.
Systematically compare your last problem step on scratch paper with the answer on the test. Place your scratch paper on top of the test paper, not off to the side.
I left some answers blank.
It usually pays to write something rather than nothing. Insert minimal information or the first step, etc.
I studied the wrong type of material.
Participating in a study group can help keep individuals on the right track. Start studying well in advance of an exam. Give yourself time to discover and focus.
I left the exam room a bit early.
You may be tempted to leave the exam room as soon as you believe you are truly done, but force yourself to take a little more time to review your work. You may find areas that could use tweaking, perhaps even spelling or grammar errors. Patience pays off.
I was tired.
Your body chemistry can help or hinder you during a test. Get a good night’s rest the night before an exam. Eat a solid breakfast in the morning. Avoid sugary items because they can cause your blood sugar to drop and make you sleepy or foggy brained. Some students meditate beforehand to clear and focus the mind and affirm an intention to do well.
I feel deflated by my grade.
You can learn from any mistakes and do better next time. Study more, review mistakes, and be sure to congratulate yourself for getting through the exam. Identify one fun thing you are proud of and happy about.
Reflection and Further Study
For some additional guidance on what to do in the event of failure and how to proceed with your studies, watch Dr. Stephen Chew's video I Blew The Exam—Now What?
Chew emphasizes the following points:
What not to do:
Don't go into denial
What to do:
Do examine how you prepared; be honest with yourself
Do review the exam; compare errors with notes taken
Do talk with your professor
Do examine your study habits
Do develop a plan
Helpful strategies to raise your grade:
Commit time and effort
Set realistic goals
Don't begin to slide
Don't give away points
Don't be the student who . . .
Keeps studying the same way, hoping to improve
Waits until the end of the term to ask for help
Skips class to focus on other classes
Falls further behind waiting to find time to catch up
Crams at the last minute
Doesn't do assignments because they are small or late
Panics and gives up
Activity: Learn from Returned Tests
Identify strategies for learning from mistakes and from doing poorly on tests or exams
Visit Duquesne University’s Web site, Help Students to Learn from Returned Tests. It has exam wrappers, post-test surveys, and error-analysis exercises you can use to help you learn from returned exams and perform better on future tests.
Keep in mind this sage advice: "All too often when students receive a graded exam, they focus on a single feature—the score they earned. Although this focus on ‘the grade' is understandable, it can lead students to miss out on several learning opportunities that such an assessment can provide." (Ambrose, et al, 2010)
"How Much Is Too Much?\" NPR. NPR. Web. 26 Apr. 2016."
"Benefits of Quizzes and Tests in Educational Practice.\" Getting Results. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2016."
"to Avoid Making Stupid Mistakes on Exams?\" Student Doctor Network. Web. 26 Apr. 2016."