INTRODUCTION: I teach a course called Mathematics for the Liberal Arts.  Students in this class are often unaware of how their behaviors negatively affect their results on an exam.  To address this problem, I created the Exam Debrief.  During this exercise, students evaluate their exam experience and identify specific changes they can make to prepare for the next exam. 

I have designed this activity for mathematics students, but it can easily be adapted to any subject area where students take exams. It would also be a good activity for a college success course where students learn to improve their results on exams. This activity takes about 15 minutes.


  • To help students become aware of and revise self-defeating behaviors that get them off course


  • Pen/Pencil
  • Exam Debrief survey (attached below)
  • Note card for each student [or Tracking Form from On Course, Chapter 4]


The script for the instructor is in quotations; additional information and instructions for the instructor are in plain text.

Note: When I administered this activity, I had a class period of 75 minutes.  The long class period allowed 50 minutes for the exam, followed by 15 minutes for the exam debrief.  If you have sufficient class time, have students complete the survey immediately following an exam.  Otherwise, they may have difficulty answering some of the questions.  If you do not have enough class time, you can allow them to complete the survey outside of class and return it during the next class period; in this approach, though, you run the risk of students forgetting to complete the survey or forgetting to return it.  Another option is to have them complete the survey at the beginning of the next class period. Also, you may want to have them complete the survey anonymously if you want to collect their surveys and analyze the results.

1. After the exam, hand out the Exam Debrief survey and announce: “Complete the survey as it relates to this exam.  Obviously, to get value from this exercise, you must be honest.” [5 minutes]

2. “On your note card, complete the sentence, ‘Changes I will make to improve my results on the next exam are …’ Based on your Exam Debrief survey, list the three specific changes you will make in preparing for the next exam, including how and when you will make the changes.”  I have found it important to emphasize that the students must include how and when they will make the changes. [5 minutes]

3. “Would anyone like to share the changes they intend to make?”  [5 minutes]

4. “You should periodically refer to your note card to remind yourself of the changes you need to make to stay on course.  To keep track of your note card, affix it in your notebook or use it as a bookmark.”  [Editor’s note: If your students are using the On Course text, you could have them use the Tracking Form on page 88 instead of the card.]

5. Collect the student surveys if you want to tabulate and analyze the results. 

6. Follow-up options:

A. About a week later, remind students of their intended changes by having them take out their note card [or Tracking Form] and review it.
B. Share the tabulated results of the surveys with the students, highlighting points of agreement and discussing the impact of self-defeating patterns.


After my students completed the exam debrief, I asked for volunteers to share the changes they were going to make.  One student said she realized she needed to spread her study time throughout the day, rather than studying only at night when she would get tired.  Another student commented that she needed to take better care of her body by getting enough sleep the night before the exam and eating nutritiously before the exam.

I collected their surveys and tallied the results (with results rounded to the nearest percent). In the appended survey, I’ve added two numbers in brackets to each question. The first number indicates the percent of my students who said they did choose that behavior before the exam. The second number indicates the percent of my students who committed to making a change in that behavior in preparation for the next exam.

In reviewing the individual response sheets, I found that all of the students who had not completed the assigned practice exercises for the exam material indicated that one of their changes for the next exam would be to complete the practice exercises.  The unanimous response indicated that the students had identified a self-defeating pattern, were willing to accept responsibility for their behaviors, and were learning to revise behaviors that limit their effectiveness. 

Nearly half of the respondents recognized that they should try to complete the practice exercises as soon after class as possible.  This was an encouraging response because it is important in mathematics that students work with the material while the new information is still fresh in their minds.

The students also indicated, indirectly, that they felt stressed during the exam.  Once again, nearly half of the students wanted to consciously relax during the next test.  As a follow-up, I directed the students to web sites addressing math anxiety (see links at

The students completed the Exam Debrief following the third exam for the course.  Over 83% of the students performed better on the fourth exam for the course than they did on the third exam.  As a comparison, I reviewed the scores of students from previous semesters that took exams of comparable content and difficulty.  Only 67% of the students from previous semesters performed better on the fourth exam than on the third exam.  It seems that the exercise helped to get students back on course.


I think there is a window of opportunity immediately following an exam to help students identify the things they did to prepare for the exam and the things that they could do better the next time.  I have found that my students internalize information better if they discover it on their own.  So, through the Exam Debrief, instructors can take advantage of this learning opportunity and guide students in their academic growth. 

I will, however, change the activity slightly the next time I do it.  When I reviewed the student responses regarding the changes they would make for the next exam, I found that they had not identified WHEN and HOW they would make changes for the next exam.  According to Downing in “On Course,” a goal needs the following five qualities to be effective: Dated, Achievable, Personal, Positive, and Specific (DAPPS rule).  The changes that the students identified were achievable, personal, and positive. But by not indicating WHEN and HOW they would make the changes, the dated and specific criteria were missing.  In order for the students to have the best opportunity to achieve their goals for the next exam, I will emphasize more the importance of identifying WHEN and HOW they plan to make the self-identified changes, thus fulfilling all the criteria of the DAPPS rule. [Editor’s note: replacing the card with the Tracking Form will assist in achieving this desired outcome.]

I tend to be a perfectionist, and my Inner Critic emerged as I reviewed the results of the survey.  “The students didn’t answer WHEN and HOW they would make the identified changes for the next exam!  How could you not think to emphasize this?”  Then my Inner Defender arrived: “Oh, it’s the students’ fault; they’re careless and didn’t read the directions.”  I knew that I needed my Inner Guide. By thinking it through in terms of Creator Language, I devised the solution that I listed as the activity modification above.  The On Course principles have taught me that even I still need to seek direction from my Inner Guide and strive to think in terms of Creator Language.

SOURCE: This strategy is based upon the Exam Evaluation questionnaire in the book Managing the Mean Math Blues by Cheryl Ooten.


EXAM DEBRIEF [In brackets, I’ve placed the percent of my students answering yes to the question followed by the percent who said they planned to change their previous behaviors for this item.]

Answer the following questions (honestly).  Circle your response, yes or no, to each question.

1. YES  NO     Did you complete the assigned practice exercises for the exam material? [62/38]

2. YES  NO     Did you attend every class session before the test? [92/0]

3. YES  NO     Were you on time to class and prepared with your paper, pencil, calculator, and textbook when class began? [100/0]

4. YES  NO     Did you take thorough class notes, recording what the instructor wrote and said, including all the examples? [100/8]

5. YES  NO     Did you complete your practice exercises as soon after class as possible? [15/46]

6. YES  NO     Did you write a dress rehearsal test, take it, and correct it before the exam? [27/8]

7. YES  NO     Did you ask questions on practice exercises or about concepts that you did not understand? [62/27]

8. YES  NO     Did you have a regular time and place to do your math studying? [47/8]

9. YES  NO     Did you use the tutoring services on campus? [15/0]

10. YES  NO   Did you actually study for the exam by working problems from the book and your notes? [92/15]

11. YES  NO   Did you consult your instructor, tutor, or fellow math students when you needed outside input or assistance? [67/27]

12. YES  NO   Did you take care of your body by eating nutritiously and getting sufficient rest during the week before and the day of the test? [38/23]

13. YES  NO   Did you consciously relax during the exam? [15/46]

14.  YES  NO  Are you confident with your performance on the test? [33/0]

These questions point to possible changes you can make before your next exam.  List at least three specific things that you will do differently before the next exam.  Also, explain HOW and WHEN you will do them.

–Dawn M. Wiggins, Faculty, Mathematics, Illinois Valley Community College, IL

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