New Approaches to Exam Prep at Stanford: Making the Practice Test Count

New Approaches to Exam Prep at Stanford: Making the Practice Test Count

Exam time can be stressful for students, especially for many  who have misconceptions about learning and have not yet developed effective study and test-taking skills. This article about practice exams held in real exam environments is the first of two that explore new and exciting approaches taken at Stanford to better prepare students for examinations. 

They’re relatively straightforward to implement, and the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) can support Stanford instructors to do something similar for your course.

Practice exam held in real exam environment: Chem 31A

Department/School: Chemistry/ School of Humanities and Sciences

Course: Chemical Principles I (CHEM 31A) - Offered Each Fall Quarter

To help students prepare for a midterm or exam, it's common practice for teachers to provide sample exams for students to complete prior to testing. It's also common practice for students to complete those sample exams with the answer keys open next to them. Unfortunately, this makes the exercise less useful.

In an effort to encourage more effective study skills and reduce exam stress, Jennifer Schwartz Poehlmann, senior lecturer of Chem 31A, has teamed up with the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) to conduct a practice exam in an actual exam setting prior to the first midterm of the quarter. Tim Randazzo, Assistant Director for Tutoring and Teaching Programs, provides coordination from CTL.

Schwartz Poehlmann explains the situation: "When we give you a practice exam, you should do it in a quiet space, using only the amount of time indicated at the top. Instead, students say, ‘I’ll take it on my bed with music playing, and when I get stumped I’ll just look at the answer key.’ They aren't timing themselves, and they don’t get anywhere close to taking the test the way it was designed to be taken." 

So when students finish taking the real exam in class, they think, "That was nothing like the practice exam!” Of course it wasn't. “It’s not the exam. It’s the environment it is taken in,” says Schwartz Poehlmann.  When students take the exam in a lecture hall, not in the comfort of a dorm room, they are more likely to walk away with a better sense of preparation.

Schwartz Poehlmann believes that a proctored practice exam is most useful for large, introductory classes in the fall quarter because these midterms are for most students their very first university-level exams.  Although the pressures of a practice exam are not the same as the pressures of an actual exam, a practice exam does prepare students mentally for examinations and provides them with personal assessment tools.

There are also additional learning benefits. Randazzo points out that recent research on retrieval shows that students learn better when they have to practice retrieving information from memory and then apply that information to solve a problem or respond to a question.

In a short article on retrieval and learning, David Glenn (senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education)writes,  "When students study on their own, 'active recall' — recitation, for instance, or flashcards and other self-quizzing — is the most effective way to inscribe something in long-term memory."  The struggle to memorize material in order to apply it later is much better for learning than the kind of passive studying that a lot of students settle for.

"Most students study material by just reviewing it," says Randazzo. The great thing about running a practice exam is that "it's such a great study tool that a lot of students wouldn't necessarily use when studying alone in the library or dorm." 

Both Randazzo and Schwartz Poehlmann emphasize how easy it is to arrange a practice exam.  Professors are already giving out old exams for students to practice, so it's just a matter of setting up a time and a space to provide students more structure. Schwartz Poehlmann offers the practice exam one week before the actual exam during regular evening office hours, when students are generally free. The practice exam is proctored in the same way as the actual exam -- it's held in a lecture hall, there is complete silence, and the exam is timed. After the practice exam is finished, students are given the option to stick around for an additional hour of tutoring. Students can later correct the practice exam, and judge for themselves how prepared they are for the actual exam.

Logistically, Schwartz Poehlmann and the chemistry department provide the exam, the room, and some TAs, while CTL organizes additional tutors for the practice exam and post-exam tutoring session. “It’s reasonably doable," says Schwartz Poehlmann, "and partnering with the CTL tutors makes it even more doable because of CTL’s help with logistics.” This past fall's practice exam had a great turnout: 188 out of 442 students attended and completed the practice exam. According to Schwartz Poehlmann, "It was very well received."

Would realistic practice exams work for your course?  How do you prepare students for examinations?  Please comment below.

Up Next: Part 2 will cover tutor-facilitated, modular review sessions.

Anna Koester Marshall is a doctoral candidate in Iberian and Latin American Cultures.

See also

Retrieval Practice in Teaching Commons

Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping. Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt.  Science. New Series, Vol. 331, No. 6018 (11 February 2011) , pp. 772-775

Retrieval-Based Learning: Active Retrieval Promotes Meaningful Learning. Jeffrey D. Karpicke. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol. 21, No. 3 (June 2012) , pp. 157-163

Refer a student to become a Subject Tutor (ST)