INTRODUCTION: I am one of several instructors at my college who teach student success workshops on a variety of topics (e.g., note taking, avoiding plagiarism, and goal setting). Students may attend any of the many workshops offered throughout the semester, choosing topics and times of the workshops they want to attend. With ten years of experience teaching college science courses, I particularly want to help students taking science classes, so I developed and teach a series of eight workshops called the Science Skills Series. This article presents one of these workshops: Strategies for Taking Science Exams. In actuality, the skills I cover in this workshop can be used by students taking tests in all other subjects as well.
The first challenge I address in the workshop is that many students do not approach test-taking with a plan or strategy that will help them do well on exams. The second challenge is that while most students vividly remember everything they did wrong on a test, they often overlook the many things they did right, giving them a skewed impression of their performance on the test. The third challenge is that often students must answer many types of questions on an exam but don’t have different strategies for answering them. This workshop is designed to help students identify their strengths and create test-taking strategies that are specific to their individual needs. Although I used this activity to teach test-taking strategies, its structure could easily be adapted for other topics in student success such as preparing for exams or study skills for memorization.
Approximate time needed: 50 minutes.
- To help students create general test-taking strategies
- To help students identify the signs of success that occur while taking tests
- To help students develop strategies for approaching specific types of test questions
- White Board
- Dry Erase Pens
- Musical Chimes or similar instrument to signal end of focus sections
- Workshop evaluation form made and copied ahead of time
- Any classroom with space for students to move into small groups and a board to write on.
1. Overview of workshop (5 Minutes)
First, I share my three purposes for the workshop and give a brief overview of the schedule. I define the word “strategy” as a plan of action to achieve a goal and explain that a strategy is created by combining various tools. I note that the end product of the workshop will be lists of tools on the board in the following six categories: general test-taking strategies, signs of success, multiple choice questions, short essay questions, diagrams, and word problems. Focus groups will be assigned to each of these categories, and for the first seven minutes, each group will brainstorm the tools they use on exams for their assigned category. During the next five minutes, a scribe from each group will put the lists on the board. Everyone will then have about ten minutes to review the suggestions, add their own suggestions to any list and to put a question mark next to any item that is unclear. Then the whole group will review all the lists and discuss any items with a question mark.
2. Focus Groups (7 Minutes)
Divide the group into seven focus groups, one group for each topic and one “group” for anyone who prefers to brainstorm alone. Those who work alone can work on any topic or all topics and will add their ideas to the lists on the board. Pick one topic and provide examples of tools that students might list. For instance for signs of success, they might list: finished with extra time, understood all the questions, felt good about answers, etc.
3. Information onto Board (5 Minutes)
Ask each focus group to elect a scribe who writes the tools compiled by the group up on the board.
4. Gallery Walk (10 Minutes)
Once all the scribes have created their lists, everyone reviews the contributions from all groups. Students add ideas, draw a star next to any idea they plan to use, and write a question mark next to any that needs an explanation (for instance, not everyone will know what a “mind map” is). At this point, the instructor also adds information and tools to any of the six topics.
5. Whole Group Debrief (23 Minutes)
With students now seated, the instructor verbalizes everything written on the board and the group discusses any topics with stars or question marks. The instructor answers questions that arise. Ask students to make a list of three tools they will use on their next exam to create their test-taking strategy.
This workshop has changed a little bit each of the four semesters that I’ve taught it, becoming a little more learner-centered each time. During the first two semesters, I gave a 30-minute lecture followed by a 20-minute interactive practice test to illustrate the strategies. Last semester, I changed the format to have students break into groups to brainstorm their strategies for one of the six topics. Afterward, each group reported their findings and I wrote their results on the board as we discussed them as a group. I noticed that student energy lagged as I wrote their ideas up on the board (and it felt slow to me, too), so this semester I changed to the current format in which students do the writing.
In my most recent workshop, the brainstorming in focus groups was very lively and students were very diligent. Five students chose not to participate in the focus groups. Two students thanked me for this option on the evaluation form and one commented, “I like how you put the quiet solo people in one group. My #1 fear is breaking into small groups. Thanks!” Of course, another student commented “I liked breaking out into small focus groups to hear everyone’s ideas.” Through trial and error, I have learned to keep the brainstorming in focus groups brief so that the students stay on task. I used to allow ten minutes to give students time to build complete lists, but I think they just built longer (not better) lists by grasping at anything that might apply. This time, the students really took charge of their experience and came up with great ideas, tools and advice for each other. Shorter brainstorming time allowed me to add my 1 or 2 tools to their lists and still have time to explain whatever was unclear. In this workshop, I only added: using mind maps and brief outlines for organizing essay questions, looking for absolutes and qualifiers and canceling double negatives in true-false questions, and reading all the choices on multiple choice questions before choosing.
Most groups were done brainstorming in 5 or 6 minutes. In fact, the first three activities (brainstorming in focus groups, putting the information on the board and doing the gallery walk) all went a little more quickly than I expected so we had about 25 minutes for the final whole-group debrief. This was just the right amount of time, any less would have been incomplete or felt rushed. As it was, we were able to take our time and discuss everything as deeply as the students wanted. This was an energetic discussion, with focus groups explaining tools that I wasn’t familiar with and all students (even those who brainstormed alone) readily adding comments and questions.
In order to assess how well I had achieved my three goals, I created a workshop evaluation form (see Support Materials) that I had each student complete. My first purpose for this activity was to help students create general test-taking strategies. On a scale of 1-5, the average score for the statement “I now have general test-taking strategies to use” was 4.4. In the comment section “Strategies I learned which I will put into practice,” students noted the following new general test taking strategies they planned to try: looking for the answer to a question within another question, answering easiest questions first, reviewing the exam before turning it in, managing test taking time, and doing the test backward.
As for my second purpose, students rated this workshop an average of 4.6 in giving them signs of success to look for during exams. Although no students commented on signs of success in the comment section of the evaluation form, we had a good discussion about the signs and why they are important and how they help keep students calm and focused during exams.
My third purpose–to help students identify strategies for approaching specific types of test questions—received a rating of 4.7. In the “strategies I will put into practice” section, six students identified tools for answering multiple choice questions, seven identified tools for true/false questions, and two focused on essay questions. The specific strategies students committed to using were circling keywords in multiple choice questions, answering the easiest multiple choice questions first, checking for “absolutes” and “qualifiers” in true-false questions, canceling double negatives in true-false questions, and using mind maps to organize essay answers.
One of my assumptions when I started teaching this workshop was that my wealth of experience was the valuable part of the workshop. With three college degrees under my belt, I had taken literally hundreds of tests and felt I could tell students what to do. Ha! As I started including more input from students, I realized how many things they were doing well and how much experience and knowledge they had to share with each other.
In its present incarnation, this workshop is very enjoyable to lead. I can make sure that some basic things get covered, but the students generate the majority of the test-taking tools. Collectively, we came up with more ideas than I would have on my own, making the workshop even more valuable than it would have been with just my information and experience. For instance, one group proposed doing the exam backwards in order to answer the harder, higher point questions first –something I would never have suggested – and several students wrote on their evaluation forms that they plan to incorporate that tool into their test taking strategies.
I recommend this activity to other instructors. It would be good to couple this activity with an exam review session in any content area. That way, students would be better prepared both in the course content and in test taking strategies. The next time I teach this workshop, I will definitely use this format again.
EVALUATION FORM: Strategies for Taking Science Exams
Please rate each statement from 5 to 1, where 5 = Strongly Agree and 1 = Strongly Disagree.
____ The ideas in this session were communicated effectively.
____ There was opportunity for appropriate participation.
____ I gained insight and practical tools by participating in this session.
____ Time was used effectively.
____ The presenter was well prepared.
____ I now have general test-taking strategies to use.
____ I now recognize signs of success to look for during exams.
____ I now have strategies for specific types of question.
Strategies I learned which I will put into practice include:
The workshop could have been improved by:
I would also like to say:
–Cara Gubbins, Learning Resource Specialist, Butte College, CA