Last semester, I wrote several articles about studying for exams, a highlight being The Art of Studying Effectively. After meeting with one of my students last week, I met, I have been thinking more about how students study, particularly what they prepare to demonstrate on a given assessment. I confess that this is something we as educators do not do a good job communicating to students.
My own reflection started in the middle of one of our later night lessons at the Student Union. A “pre-med” track student, she had just received back her chemistry exam and, after studying at great length, both in time and in activities, she ended up doing not nearly as well as either of us had hoped. I took her exam, and quietly went through it, reading each prompt, solving each problem by hand, noting the level of difficulty of each solution, and comparing her worked solutions to mine. We went through each question and my answer key, and, for the most part, she nodded in agreement with what I did, noting along the way the relative ease of each problem’s solution.
Towards the end, I paused, place the exam down flatly on the table between us, looked at her, and quietly commented, “So, what did you not know how to do?” My question was loaded, since either she was nodding blindly without really understanding the solutions, or I needed to move her to a place where she would reflect on herself and how she studied, rather than subjugating the exam itself as the problem. I got up, and asked for her to take a few minutes to think of an answer before responding.
When I came back, I repeated my question, to which she lowered her eyes towards the exam, gesticulated at the paper, and blurted out, “I didn’t know where to start. Like, I wouldn’t have come up with that [meaning, the first line of what I wrote for each solution].”
And then it dawned on me. From both how she studied and now reviewing her answers, it was clear that she knew the material, at least by factual recall. Go beyond that, and we ran into a problem. Textbook Bloom’s Taxonomy.
A classic mistake had been made: My student may have studied the material, and learned what was on the page, but did not study how the professor wanted her to use and apply the material!
A quick primer. If you look at the diagram of Bloom’s Taxonomy (and I note for all of the educators that this diagram is only for the cognitive domain!), as one learns, higher order processes in the cognitive domain are dependent on mastery of lower order processes. For example, one cannot compare and contrast two different items or situations without having knowledge of specific facts, principles, and theories.
How does all this apply to students, especially in STEM courses? You want to know where in the taxonomy you will be tested.
- Will the teacher ask you factual recall?
- Calculate some quantity by applying given data to a formula?
- Need to apply various formulas in succession and make theoretical connections to manipulate the given information and scenario to determine the final result?
How do you find out?
- Look at what kinds of questions are asked in class, lecture, discussion, recitation, and review sessions.
- Scan through handouts, worksheets, lecture PowerPoints, and sample exams.
- Ask your teacher, professor, or teaching assistant.
- Find students who have taken the course previously and ask them!
Or, if you are more like me, I just prepare for all possibilities, and work on all of the skills and processes that seem reasonable to me. I do not just prepare things for factual recall (in fact, all of my students will tell you how much I abhor memorization, and never test for it on my exams!), but I make sure that I can use formulas and discipline specific vocabulary fluently, and am able to discuss any phenomena in either science or engineering as if I am teaching it to another student. By the by, an excellent study technique – if you can teach someone else accurately, you know the material well.
Bottom Line: Make sure that are prepared to demonstrate your knowledge and skill set in ways that you will be asked to on an exam when you study. Don’t stick to low taxonomic skills and think everything will go well!
My student learned during our lesson that she a great job preparing lower taxonomic skills, knowledge and comprehension. However, nearly all of the questions on the exam focused on the area between application and analysis. We’re now working together to make her more aware of how she tends to focus on the lower skills, and teaching her how to prepare for the high taxonomic skills, which is what we work on together in our lessons already. I am excited to see how she does on her next exam in two weeks!
Solomon Berman is the Founder and Lead Teacher of Quantum Prep LLC. He actively teaches chemistry, physics, and mathematics at the high school, college, and post baccalaureate levels, having taught both in public education and at a top tier university. His focus lies in developing the most innovative and effective catalogue of pedagogical techniques for STEM disciplines, and helping students become powerful STEM learners in their classes, competitive in assessments, and successful with projects. He has studied at Bates College, Harvard University, Boston College, and Boston University, and is a native of Boston, Massachusetts.