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Exam prologues and epilogues

More times than I can remember, I’ve been in a discussion of teaching with Janet or Jerod and the following happens: They suggest a really good idea. I respond with Wow, that’s a good idea. They then reply, Sam, I learned that idea from you. I don’t know if they are telling the truth or not, but I appreciate that I have helped them develop some useful teaching methodologies.

I also appreciate the many things about teaching that I have learned from these colleagues. Jerod and Janet both do a very nice job with writing journals, and looking at what they do has helped me develop my own model for such journals. (I still don’t do as well as they do, but I think I do well enough.)

These past few days, I’ve been reflecting on a particularly useful technique that I learned from Janet: meta-cognitive wrappers. As I understand it, students learn and retain information better if they are asked to reflect on work both before and after they do the work. A few years ago, when Janet and I were both teaching CSC 151, we added prologues and epilogues to the take-home exams for CSC 151.

Perhaps I should add a bit of background. In my experience, in-class exams aren’t useful for what I generally want to test students on. I’m less interested in their ability to memorize syntax, interpret short segments of code, or solve simple problems in a limited-time and high-stress situation. I’m much more interested in how they approach more difficult problems when they have resources and time available to them. I think of exams as opportunities for students to learn. I also know that different students take different amounts of time to solve the same problem, and the amount of time they take is not representative of their understanding. And so I give take-home exams.

Okay, back to the prologues and epilogues. For the prologues, we ask the students, within a few days of receiving the exam, to provide a short note on how they will approach each problem and to indicate something that they can do to help themselves succeed on the exam. The short notes on the problems can range from This problem is easy enough that I’ve solved it already to I’m going to try the following to This looks really similar to a problem I did on hw 3 to I don’t understand this; I should ask Sam. The strategies for success range from Do a little work very day to move on to the next problem when I get stuck to get enough sleep to drink more coffee. I don’t recommend the last strategy, but the others I just mentioned are good.

For the epilogue, we ask the students to reflect on what problem was the most difficult, and why. We also ask the students to identify two strategies that will help them be more successful on the next exam. I don’t recall the exact reasons we chose those prompts, but they are good ones. The first forces students to think about the whole exam, and what kinds of problems they find difficult. The second helps them reflect not just on our exams, but on what kinds of habits they should develop.

The prologues serve other purposes, too. Too often, students wait until the last minute to work on their take-home exams. But we give take-home exams because we think it’s important for students to have the time to let a problem work through their brain. Not every problem has an obvious solution. Since they have to fill out the prologue soon after receiving the exam, they start thinking about the problems relatively early on in the process.

This semester, I’ve started to use Formstack for the prologues. (I used to use Google Docs. However, the College prefers that I use Formstack to help maintain FERPA compliance.) I’ve managed to configure Formstack to make the forms more helpful to me. I get an email when a student submits their prologue, and I can quickly respond to good and less good ideas. (Drinking more coffee is probably not the best approach. I’m glad that you plan to take breaks when you get stuck for more than five minutes. At that point, you should send me an email message.) I realize that my quest for inbox zero suffers from these additional email messages, as well as the additional email messages my suggestions will likely create. The prologues also give me the opportunity to note and correct any confusing parts. I suspect that my responses to the prologues also improve my relationships with students, but we’ll see how that goes. It’s certainly been easier to respond with the emailed forms.

These wrappers are one of many techniques I have adapted or adopted throughout my career. I’m thankful that I’m at a school where my colleagues, both within and outside of the department, care so clearly about teaching and so regularly share good ideas that help make me a better teacher.

Version 1.0 of 2017-02-09.