There are many reasons to enjoy the final month of a school year. One that we particularly like is the chance to measure the academic development of students through final projects or exams to see how far they have come since the start of their year-long, trimester, or semester courses.
Too often, teachers think too narrowly about the final project or exam experience. We know from the Science of Teaching and Learning that there is a better way—a cycle of learning and solidifying knowledge and skills into each student’s long-term memory that helps it be recalled under moderate stress and anxiety, as well as transferred to learning experiences in future courses.
In the book, Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education, the authors’ presented the idea of “Assessment 360” using this graphic. The goal was to not lower the high bar we have for all students, but to lower the barriers, such as extraneous cognitive load and amygdala hijacking. Here are some teaching and learning strategies that apply the concept of “Assessment 360” to final exam and project design. Give them a try and let us know how they went.
Exam study guides and project rubric design:
If designed well, study guides should be a way to embed and deepen learning, support the executive function skills of students, and reduce cognitive load so students can build schema into their long-term memory. It is important to explicitly teach effective and efficient study strategies and help your students use them, as well as reviewing the essential content and skills you are assessing. Students of all ages struggle with spacing their practice, so make sure you help plan spaced practice yourself.
All exam review packets or project rubrics should:
- Establish the purpose of the final assessment (“The purpose of this exam is to…”)
- Explain the format of the final assessment
- Clearly state due dates for any exam prep assignments
- Outline the content and skills that will be focused on
- Suggest strategies students can use to be effective, efficient, and self-directed in their preparation
In addition to handing out exam review packets and project rubrics, you should build review into your classes and homework.
- Begin review early so that students can do spaced practice.
- Review for exams or work for final projects must be set as your homework, not as an additional expected task on top of your regular load of other homework. Reduce your regular homework so students can work on exam preparation or final projects.
- If you are planning a study session the day before your exam, it should be optional and used for student questions and not to reteach material. We don’t want students to rely on day-before studying, we want them to adopt a longer term, spaced out approach.
You should explicitly teach effective and efficient study skills.
If you are giving a test, focus on strategies that involve retrieval practice followed by checking your notes or an answer guide, rather than simply re-reading.
- Students of all abilities struggle with spaced practice, so help them by suggesting what to study when, making sure they study all topics more than once spaced out over time.
- Help students avoid arts-and-crafts studying where they make beautiful study materials but, as a result, do not have sufficient time to study.
- Teach students how to use flashcards correctly (if you know it, try connecting it to something else while thinking about how it is similar and how it is different; if you don’t know it, really puzzle over it for a few seconds before flipping it over)
- Balance gamified/play studying experiences with less enjoyable but maybe more effective methods. Try to avoid competitive study games that prioritize speed of recall.
- Include short formative assessment activities in class to gauge where students are in their studying, and alter the practice you assign or suggest to them based upon what you learn.
- Talk to students about strategies to help manage stress. Remind students the need for self-care, the importance of sleep, nature, exercise, and friendships to counter stress. More on this can be found here.
Here are some suggestions if you are giving a project:
Help scaffold students’ executive function skills, such as:
- Break a large project into smaller well-defined chunks
- Help give guidelines about what should be done by when
- Build in checkpoints midway. Prioritize giving feedback mid-project, when students can do something about it, rather than at the end, when they can’t.
- Give class time for projects so that you can check in on students’ progress, and so that more of the work is done by the student rather than the parent or tutor.
- Try using a “single point rubric” which leaves room for students to say how they think they are exceeding or not meeting expectations. Use rubrics before and during the project, not just at the end.
- Be aware that some students struggle to connect skills and knowledge from prior units to the current project, even when such connections seem obvious to us. Given that this project is a final assessment, make conscious decisions about how much scaffolding you apply here.
In addition, help make projects more equitable by providing any necessary materials to students, or grade in a way where access to costly arts and crafts supplies does not factor into the grade.
A Thought on Exam and Project Handback
At St. Andrew’s, we have created a short period of class time after the exams – just a couple of days – so that students can see the results of their work and have the chance to reflect on it before heading into the summer. We also know that receiving grades is an emotional experience, so having the chance to connect with each student during the final class period of the year is a way to clarify an exam or project result as well as to communicate your support of their learning and their potential for future growth.
Great teaching is built on relationships, and these two days put relationships at the heart of how we end school. Grading is quicker as we can just circle mistakes and have students work on fixing them in class, rather than writing a ton to justify the grade we gave. As an idea, have students write a note to themselves that teachers can keep and pass on to them (or their teachers or advisors) next year, of how they will apply and transfer this final exam or project experience to their work next year.
The CTTL’s MBE Strategies Placemat provides further clarity about the academic, social, and emotional research and strategies that can inform and transform the design of the final exam and project experience for each of your students. You might also consider playing a game of the Neuromyth Cards with your students!
Your professional wisdom and experience, as well as these research-informed teaching and learning strategies, can help all students be even better prepared for their final exam or project experience. Let us know what strategies you try and which ones work best for your subject and your students.