When you return an exam to your students, you know they’re going to focus in on the grade they earned, to the exclusion of practically everything else. That’s understandable, but there’s a problem with that focus: there’s a lot more information in a graded exam that students could benefit from. They could review what they got correct or incorrect on the exam, for example, or they could reflect on the efficacy of their study strategies. This kind of thinking is called metacognition – basically, knowing what you know and don’t know, and knowing how to learn. Students vary considerably in their metacognitive skills; successful students have a wide range of metacognitive skills that can help them learn and study effectively in any course.
One strategy to promote metacognition among your students is using exam wrappers. Exam wrappers are activities that “wrap around” an exam—that is, they come either before or after the exam, or both—and that help students plan their study for the exam or reflect on their performance afterward and strategize how they can improve their performance on the next exam. Studies have shown exam wrappers lead to increases in metagognition, and various studies have shown moderate to significant improvement in students’ subsequent exam performance.
When and how to use exam wrappers
An exam wrapper is most often done as a survey given to students when they receive their graded exam, giving them a structured opportunity to reflect on their performance. Questions commonly included in this type of exam wrapper might address study strategies:
- How did you study for this exam? What strategies did you use?
- Here you could include a list of study strategies and have students indicate which they used. This can serve as a subtle reminder of the range of study strategies students could draw from when they prepare for the next exam.
- How much time did you spend studying?
- This gives students a chance to connect their studying with the outcome of the exam—the grade—in a way that might motivate them to change their studying behavior for the next exam.
If students are allowed to see the actual graded exam, an error analysis might be included:
- What kinds of errors did you make? Where did you lose points?
- This kind of question could be particularly useful in courses in which later content builds on earlier content, or in which there is a cumulative final exam. You can list types of errors that are common for that exam (e.g., not understanding the problem, using the wrong formulas, calculation errors, etc.)
Some reflective questions can also be included:
- What was difficult for you in this exam? What was easy?
- These questions help students assess how well they know particular parts of the content, so they can review it for subsequent exams.
- What did you do well to prepare for the exam?
- This question has been shown to be particularly beneficial for first-generation college students, to help them overcome a fixed mindset and boost their confidence.
The exam wrapper can also encourage students to begin planning for the next exam:
- What could you do differently to study for the next exam?
- This can encourage students to develop a “study game plan” for the next exam, to help improve their performance.
Exam wrappers can also be given to students before they take an exam, to help them prepare effectively. In this case, you might ask students to create exam questions at different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, or to predict what major topics will appear on the exam, how much of the exam will be devoted to each topic, and what kinds of questions will be asked. Students can then use this “exam blueprint” as they study.
Yet another alternative is to include some exam-wrapper questions at the end of the exam itself, so that students can reflect on their experience immediately after they’ve finished. In this situation, you might ask students to list the study strategies they used and rank the effectiveness of each, or predict their score on the exam. This latter strategy can be particularly useful if you think your students might be overconfident about their exam-related skills, or overestimate their understanding of exam content. When they receive their graded exam back, with their prediction about their exam grade, the discrepancy between the two can be a useful wake-up call.
Why to use exam wrappers—the advantages
Using exam wrappers in any of these ways—before an exam, immediately afterward, or when graded exams are returned to students—can help students develop skills that will improve their performance in your course. But they have an added benefit: the skills boosted by using exam wrappers will transfer to other learning contexts, to improve learning and performance in other courses and in their lives beyond college. Exam wrappers have several additional advantages. For example, while they do take some time to develop, they don’t need to take up much class time, and can even be done as homework. They’re easily adaptable to different disciplines and courses, and to other kinds of graded assignments. And they’re repeatable; they can be used for multiple assignments over a semester, since the questions don’t diminish in value when they’re asked on more than one occasion.
To learn more about exam wrappers or view examples of wrappers for different disciplines, visit the links below.
- Bowen, José Antonio. Cognitive Wrappers: Using Metacognition and Reflection to Improve Learning
- Dutcher, Cristen. Inclusion through Balanced Reflection. ISSOTL Connect 2021. (14:27 video)
- Eberly Center (Carnegie Mellon University). Exam Wrappers. (provides several sample exam wrappers)
- The Global Metacognitive Institute. Do Exam Wrappers Work?
- Lovett, Marsha. “Make Exams Worth More Than the Grade.” Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning, edited by Matthew Kaplan, Naomi Silver, Danielle LaVaque-Manty, and Deborah Meizlish. Stylus Publishing, 2013.