Following up the First Examination
Remembering that the first exam is the most significant retention milepost in most courses, it is critical to adopt a proactive posture toward managing its impact, both before and after its administration.
After scoring your examination, invest the time to analyze the results by listing the scores from high to low, calculating the average score, and determining the number of A's, B's, etc. If you gave an "objective" exam, i.e. multiple choice, true/false, matching, you should also calculate the number of times each question was "missed." (Using Scantron systems enable you to do this instantly!) Doing so enables you to look at those missed by the overwhelming majority of students in a new light, and consider "tossing out" those whose wording was ineffective, or which were otherwise flawed. If the test results were especially disappointing and the anxiety among your students during the test was especially high, consider sending an email to students to reassure them that the situation will be dealt with positively at your next class meeting.
Besides lack of sufficient preparation, there are many reasons why students might not perform well on the first exam. Students may have added the class late, not been able to purchase their textbook early enough (a significant number of students say they cannot afford to buy textbooks), missed your in-class review session, or have other legitimate reasons. While it is critical to demonstrate sensitivity, you are also wise to reinforce high standards by avoiding "curving" the results, e.g. adding an arbitrary number of points to all students who completed the exam. Nonetheless, there are effective ways to achieve your desired objectives, while lessening the impact of poor exam results on student retention.
When returning scored exams, first provide a reassuring statement about overall results. Avoid returning "answer sheets" until after you (and students!) have provided carefully reviewed each question and discerned the correct answer. This will encourage students to stay on your pace and promote thorough understanding. After reviewing questions, return the answer sheets. While students review them and double check them against the test questions, list the scores, high to low on the board or overhead projector, along with the average score. Students need to know how their performance compared to the class overall. This procedure fosters a glimmer of pride among some. For others, it elicits doubt, not just over their decision to enroll in the class, but perhaps to even attend school. After this first exam, it is critical that you affirm the former, and offer relief to the latter. I have found that students who are rescued from their frustration will often ratchet up their performance to accommodate your expectations.
I call one successful solution I have used "Plan B." With the test weights identified in the course syllabus considered "Plan A," this alternative scoring plan is easy for students to understand, while not complicating your paperwork. Assume that your syllabus states there will be three unit exams, a project, and a final exam, each weighted at 20% of the final course grade. You can offer to let students "drop" the first exam grade only, by simply writing "Plan B" beside their name on the second unit exam (or by emailing you or some other method of your choosing that creates a record.) The remaining four elements are then weighted at 25% each. While students benefit from "getting another chance," they are required to increase their commitment to success through the increased weight. Inconvenience to you is minimal, and you get to teach more students for the remainder of the term. Your department chair and dean are happy, because a larger percentage of the students starting the course complete it.
Orchestrating such "win-win-win" scenarios are essential to becoming an effective instructor. Continue to look for such opportunities in your teaching.