Should you stop telling your students to study for exams?

Male student in library studyingThe Innovative Instructor recently came across a thought-provoking article by David Jaffee in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams. In a nutshell, Jaffee advocates for telling students that they should study for learning and understanding rather than for tests or exams. He reminds us that just because content is covered in class does not mean that students really learn it. Regurgitating information for an exam does not equal long-term retention. He points out that there are real consequences to this traditional approach.

On the one hand, we tell students to value learning for learning’s sake; on the other, we tell students they’d better know this or that, or they’d better take notes, or they’d better read the book, because it will be on the next exam; if they don’t do these things, they will pay a price in academic failure. This communicates to students that the process of intellectual inquiry, academic exploration, and acquiring knowledge is a purely instrumental activity—designed to ensure success on the next assessment.

His claims are backed with evidence. Numerous studies have shown that students who use rote memorization to cram for tests and exams do not retain the information studied over the long term. Real learning, which involves retention and transfer of knowledge to new situations, is a complicated process reflected by the vast amount of research on the subject.

As a side note, for those interested in learning more about cognitive development and student learning, there is a nice summary of key studies and models in the book by James M. Lang On Course: A Week by Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching [Harvard University Press, 2008]. See Week 7 Students as Learners for an overview and bibliography.

Instead of a cumulative final exam, Jaffee recommends using formative and authentic assessments, which “[u]sed jointly…can move us toward a healthier learning environment that avoids high-stakes examinations and intermittent cramming.” Formative assessments, performed in class, provide opportunities for students to understand where their knowledge gaps are. [See The Innovative Instructor 2013 GSI Symposium Breakout Session 2: Formative Assessment and Teaching Tips: Classroom Assessment.] Authentic assessments allow students “to demonstrate their abilities in a real-world context.” Examples include group and individual projects, in-class presentations, multi-media assignments, and poster sessions.

The article has obviously provoked some controversy as evidenced by the number of comments made – 225 as of this posting. One of the commenters supporting Jaffee with several rebuttals to critics is Robert Talbert, Professor of Mathematics at Mathematics Department at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, and author of The Chronicle of Higher Education blog Casting Out Nines. Talbert has blogged extensively on his experiences with flipping his classroom.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources


Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art

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