Can peer discussion and self-reflection turn a midterm exam into a learning experience for undergraduate biology students?
Instructors of a second-year genetics course in the UBC Biology Program recently tried a new activity designed to help students reflect on their midterm performance. In the days immediately following the midterm, students first rewrote the midterm in groups, then each student reflected on the quality of the group’s answers compared to their own in order to identify their own successes and failures—all before receiving a grade. In this post, we want to share how the activities were implemented, what the students reported as helpful and unhelpful to their learning, and what the instructors would do differently next time.
How the midterm re-write and reflection activity was implemented:
- Students wrote the midterm individually, in class, on a Monday.
- Students re-wrote the midterm in groups during their tutorial session that same week (course has a mandatory one-hour weekly tutorial). Once complete, they were given an answer key and asked to go through their answers together and figure out where they went wrong.
- After that (still during tutorial), each student completed an individual reflection worksheet about what they learned from re-writing and discussing the midterm with their group.
- The re-write and reflection activities were not worth any marks.
The instructor’s goals and rationale for the activity:
- We wanted students to learn from the midterm (and not just be evaluated by it) by working through the questions in groups, but there simply wasn’t time to run our typical two-stage group exam in class.
- Tutorials that run the same week as a midterm don’t include new material, so we thought it was a good opportunity to convert the group portion of the midterm to an in-tutorial exercise.
- We wanted students to identify—for themselves—their successes and mistakes on the midterm and reflect on their own performance before receiving a grade. We hoped this would help students see the connection between their study-habits, their approach when answering questions and the quality of their answers, and their grade.
Results: What types of comments did students make during the midterm reflection activity?
A large number of students made comments to the effect that the group re-write and reflection activity gave them a new perspective on their approach to solving some of the problems, or identified gaps in their understanding. Here is a summary of analysis of a random sample of student reflections:
- 70% articulated a new approach to solving a problem, including methods to check their answers are correct
- 27% commented on needing to pay closer attention to the information in the question, and using all the information given
- 27% recognized a need to improve their understanding of a concept, or explore combining concepts within one question
- 50% commented on the fact that some questions could have multiple answers, and it might be necessary to compare options and decide which one is best
What did the students think of the midterm re-write and reflection activities?
Students were later asked for feedback about the activity during the Mid-Course Survey, an unofficial survey of students’ attitudes towards various aspects of the course. On a multiple-choice question asking if the midterm re-write and reflection activity was helpful for their learning:
- 50% of students reported it was helpful.
- 28% were neutral.
- 22% reported it was unhelpful.
On an open-ended survey question asking what, if anything, was helpful about the activity, students reported that they liked:
- Discussing how to solve problems with others.
- Figuring out what they did wrong.
- Learning how to solve things in a different way.
- Getting feedback so quickly.
- Learning from peers.
- Discussing was more beneficial than just seeing the answer key.
- Interesting to see other perspectives.
- Helped clarify my understanding.
On another question asked students what, if anything, they did not like about the activity, students reported that:
- completing the activity on the same day as the midterm was exhausting [for students whose tutorial was the same day as the midterm].
- it was stressful to find out during the re-write which questions they got wrong on the midterm.
- it was frustrating that they couldn’t take home the re-write and answer key right away. [answer key was posted online at a later date].
- they wished that the midterm re-write counted for marks.
- re-writing the midterm would be more useful if it happened after the midterm scores were announced.
What did the instructors think of the midterm re-write and reflection activities?
The instructors thought both activities worked well overall but ultimately suffered because neither was worth any marks. During a typical two-stage exam the group portion is worth a substantial fraction of a student’s overall mark and it is rare to see a student disengaged; in this case, during the midterm re-write more than a few students were seen to be disengaged and not contributing to their group’s discussions. In future, the instructors would assign some marks to the group re-write activity in order to encourage students to take it seriously.
As for reflection, the instructors wanted students to reflect on their own performance before receiving a grade, i.e., to see beyond their numeric score to the connection between their study-habits, approach to answering questions and the quality of their answers. However, only half of the students reported the midterm re-write and reflection to be useful for their learning and several reported wanting to know their midterm score before the re-write. To alleviate this issue, in future the instructors would like to include at least one new isomorphic question with the reflection activity that would be worth points and contribute to a student’s original midterm score. The purpose of the isomorphic question would be 1) to show students the value of the reflection activity in terms of tangible marks and 2) more immediately connect students’ study and test-taking habits, just reflected upon, with their performance on a similar question. Alternatively, the instructors may try an exam-analysis activity (Williams et al, 2011).
If you’re an instructor, do you incorporate any kind of self-reflection activity into your tests? Any successes to share or pitfalls to avoid? If you’re a student, have any of your classes ever included a reflection activity? Do you ever reflect on your own habits and how they affect your performance during a test?
William, A. E., Aguilar-Roca, N. M., Tsai, M., Wong, M., Beaupré, M. M., & O’Dowd, D. K. (2011). Assessment of learning gains associated with independent exam analysis in introductory biology. CBE life sciences education, 10(4), 346–56.