How to Know What Your Students Know before It's Too Late

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I just finished my first semester teaching introductory biology and I thought it went relatively well. That is, until I started grading the final exam. Many of my students thought they did well on the test, but after reading some of their responses, I think they missed some fundamental concepts and skills. I knew that not everyone was going to get an A, but I was discouraged that they missed so much and I worry that they will run into trouble in their upper division classes. The students who missed these questions regularly attended class, were attentive, and completed homework reading and problems so they weren’t slackers! How can I help my students figure out what they’re confused about before the final exam without making the course simple memorization? I don’t want to send students to upper division classes without fundamental knowledge and skills that they need, but where do I start?
—Too Little, Too Late

Dear Too Little, Too Late,

I know where you are coming from; I’ve had the same experience! I’ve even wondered if it would be reasonable to get in touch with the class after the term was over to clarify something they struggled with on the final. While you can’t change the past, this experience can be an opportunity to reflect on what you could do to 1) help make your expectations clear to students, 2) give them practice with the content and skills you want them to develop, and 3) predict their responses so you can adress their confusions before the final. Reflecting on these key ideas might help change the situation next time around.

So what are your expectations for your students? No doubt you have specific and testable things that you want your students to know and be able to do. Here we’ll call these learning objectives, although some institutions may have other language to define these specific and testable objectives. For example, let’s say you want to teach your students about mitosis. What do you really want them to know or be able to do? A learning objective might be that you want students to be able to depict graphically the changes in DNA amount in cells in different stages of mitosis. If that’s not the level at which you want your students to learn the content, you might have a different learning objective asking students to be able to identify cells at different stages of mitosis on a microscope slide.

If you already have learning objectives, to what extent are you sharing them directly with students? Are your learning objectives referenced or discussed in class? Embedded in your textbook? Written on a study guide or in your syllabus? While it may seem obvious to you, as the instructor, what students should focus on, chances are that, as novices, they don’t know. In fact, both students and instructors have reported benefits in sharing specific learning objectives with students.1 Explicitly shared learning objectives may also help students differentiate between levels of knowledge, encouraging students to be metacognitive of their learning. You may want students to be able to apply and synthesize ideas, but they may be studying to recall and recognize key ideas instead. The research in this area suggests that clear, specific, and measurable learning objectives are the most beneficial to students, and these specific objectives can ask for much more than memorization.

Once the learning objectives for students are clearly defined, you can think about what practice students are getting to help master the learning objectives. It may seem obvious, but just like students need practice with pipettes to hone their skills in the lab, they need practice drawing graphs, interpreting data, and describing biological processes if they are going to be able to do these things on an exam. The idea of goal-oriented practice, or deliberate practice, is one that has been described in the literature as effective for student learning2 (see also chapter 5 in reference 3). In a deliberate-practice model, students are given multiple opportunities to iteratively improve in response to instructor feedback. This is best for more complex learning goals. An example of deliberate practice in introductory courses can be found in Batz et al.4 Would deliberate practice be useful for any of the content your students struggled with on your final exam?

The first time teaching a course is always the hardest, in part because it is difficult to predict student responses! While it may be difficult, there is certainly a benefit in being able to predict how students will respond because teachers who can do so have been shown to produce students with higher learning gains.5 Rather than simply predicting student responses, you might think about deliberate practice as chances to give your students a “low stakes” opportunity to practice what will eventually be on the “high stakes” exam. I have found it helpful to get feedback from all of my students about how they are thinking about specific content in the course. This means collecting something from each and every student rather than relying on the few who will raise their hands in class or who attend office hours. Those students are self-selected and might mislead you into thinking everyone understands something when they do not. Below are a few methods that have helped me to see what students are thinking “on the fly”:

    • Using index cards to ask a question at the end of class about the class session’s main takeaway; this index card could be an “exit ticket” that students must complete before they leave.
    • Initiating pair or small group discussions where you eavesdrop as you walk around the room to hear what students are discussing. You won’t be able to hear all the conversations, but you may get a sense of where students’ confusions are.
    • Creating challenge statements, which use a core idea that students might struggle with and “challenge” them to write a response. For instance, you could share a misconception and ask students if they agree or disagree with the statement, and then have them write a few sentences supporting their response. In fact, the misconceptions you found on your final exams this year could make great challenge statements for your class to practice responding to next year!

Ultimately, learning objectives that clearly define for students what you want them to be able to do, deliberate or low stakes practice, and feedback from students about how they’re thinking throughout the semester can be used in combination so that you know before the term is over what your students are getting from your course and what you may need to clarify. Remember, it’s not just the students who are learning, but we as teachers are learning too!

1Simon B, Taylor J (2009). What is the value of course-specific learning goals? Journal of College Science Teaching
39, 52–57.
2Ericsson KA, Krampe R, Tesch-Romer C (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert
performance. Psychological Review 100, 363–406.
3Ambrose SA, et al. (2010) How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. John Wiley &
4Batz Z, et al. (2015). Helping struggling students in introductory biology: a peer-tutoring approach that improves
performance, perception, and retention. CBE—Life Sciences Education 14, ar16.
5Sadler PM, et al. (2013). The influence of teachers’ knowledge on student learning in middle school physical
science classrooms. American Educational Research Journal 50, 1020–1049.

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