Preparing Students for the First Exam

An earlier tip emphasized the increasing need for professors to improve retention of students throughout the term, and provided guidelines for managing the first milepost, i.e. the first class meeting. Most veteran instructors would agree that the second significant -- and perhaps even more impactful -- milepost is the first examination. It is not uncommon for the first exam to trigger a withdrawal of 20-25% of students! Therefore it is critical to manage this milepost effectively. Following are some simple guidelines:

  1. 1. Prepare the exam several weeks in advance. Before concluding each class meeting, check yourself to see that the test items from the material covered has been adequately addressed. If not, quiz students to see that most understand.
  2. Think about providing students a study guide for the exam, which needs to be no more than a simple listing of concepts that will be included on the exam. Most effective teachers believe students should perceive few, if any surprises on an exam - eliminating the "gotcha!" that many of us can remember from our student days. Study guides are especially valuable to working students, or others unable to attend all class meetings, and foster individual responsibility for success.
  3. At the close of the session prior to the test's administration, provide a thorough review of the exam - its content, approach, format, and scoring weights. If your first exam is primarily multiple-choice, consider conducting a five-item exercise whose questions are very similar to actual exam questions. If your exam includes essay questions, be sure to provide a scoring "rubric" that addresses the approach and content you would expect an excellent response to include.
  4. Encourage students to email you during the week prior to the exam to clarify any questions that might occur during their study. Should issues arise that indicate callers - often your most motivated students - are unclear about test items, email all class members with clarification. Besides providing clarifying information, such communications also indicate that you are "on their side" during this often frustrating, isolating experience.
  5. Encourage students to seek out peers within the class - whom they've gotten to know through your icebreaker and other interactive opportunities - to form study groups. Should personal meetings be impossible, telephone or email discussions are often helpful substitutes.
  6. Lastly, arrive a half-hour or so prior to the administration of the first exam. If several students show up for help, be sure to spread your time as equitably as possible among all.

Chapter 10 of The Adjunct Professor's Guide to Success contains additional material on the strengths and weaknesses of various test formats, practice test construction exercises, and additional tips.

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