Why are my exams SO HARD?!?!?!?

interval learning mastery retentions spiral review study skills Oct 18, 2018

Exams are stressful! I have experienced them as a student, a teacher, a tutor and a parent and they are just plain stressful! It seems exam reviews are never given out early enough. They are often collected a few days prior to the exam (so what are students supposed to use to review?) and without fail the majority of my students SWEAR up and down that they were never taught a large percentage of the material on the review guide. 


Why is it this true? Exam reviews contain problems from the ENTIRE semester and as if that wasn’t daunting enough, the problems are in no particular order. When you are learning skills in math class you learn them one at a time. Your homework covers the skills taught that day. You may have a quiz that covers 3 or 4 skills and you will almost always have a test that covers the chapter in your book, often 6 or 7 skills. When I receive requests for tutoring one of the most common concerns I hear is “My son/daughter’s homework grades are good but they struggle on tests.” Repeated struggles with testing can lead to test anxiety or the perception that “I am just not a good test taker.” 


While test anxiety is real, sometimes it is the symptom not the disease. Most math courses are presented as massed practice or clustered learning. You learn a skill, do your homework practice of that skill, learn another skill, do your homework practice of that skill, and then take a quiz. By the time you take a test on the subject you may not have looked at the first skill for a week or more. Couple that with the fact that multiple skills are being tested in random order. Now you need to decide what skill to use, remember how to use it and complete the problem correctly. For many students, the test is the first time that this is required of them. Exams cover material from multiple tests again in random order. Some of the material hasn’t been practiced for 6 weeks. No wonder students are overwhelmed. 


So, now that we have identified the problem, what do we do about it. Well, short of redesigning the school curriculum, the ball is in the student’s court and the solution is actually fairly simple. I encourage my students to keep a notebook of problems they found challenging, just 2 or 3 per lesson. (If they needed help with more problems than that, the entire lesson needs to be reviewed.) I ask them to spend just 10 minutes practicing problems from prior lessons.  It is important that they leave enough time between attempts so that they are not just memorizing the answer and that they choose problems from multiple days so that they are getting a broad sample of problems. Once they have gotten the problem correct 3 times, they can remove it from the rotation. This practice builds many skills. Students learn to recognize the different types of problems and practice the skills needed to solve them correctly. The multiple attempts help solidly install that skill in the student’s memory. It also helps the student learn to apply skills learned to new problems and situations. 


While I have been advocating this “spiral review” for years, a recent study from Dartmouth College offers scientific support for this approach. I have attached the link in case you would like to read the article. 




Final TakeAway: Interval practice of problems can dramatically improve student performance with minimal increase in the time spent.

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