When you return a graded exam to your students, you know they’re going to focus in on the grade, to the exclusion of everything else. That’s understandable, but problematic: there’s a lot more information in a graded exam than just the grade – and it’s information that students could use to improve their performance. They could review what they struggled with on the exam, for example, or engage in metacognitive reflection on the efficacy of their study strategies. Considerable evidence has demonstrated that metacognitive skills like these are critical for student success (e.g., Stanton, Sebesta, and Dunlosky, 2021).
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—that help students plan their study or reflect on their performance and strategize how they can improve on the next exam.
Exam wrappers administered before or during an exam
Exam wrappers given to students before they take an exam can help them prepare effectively. In a pre-exam wrapper you might ask students:
- What study strategies do you plan to use to study for this exam?
- Here you can list study strategies that are most likely to be effective, to encourage students to use them rather than less effective ones.
- What topics do you expect will be on the exam?
- How much of the exam do you think will be devoted to each topic?
- What kinds of questions do you think will be asked about each topic?
- After answering these 3 questions, students can use resulting “exam blueprint” as they study.
You can also ask students a few exam wrapper questions on your exam itself, to help students reflect in the moment about the effectiveness of their study strategies, what content they feel confident about, and where they think they might have lost points. Responding to these questions will help students develop their metacognitive skills, and if used with a post-exam wrapper, can help students gain insight into how accurately they can assess their own study strategies and performance.
Exam wrappers administered after an exam
An exam wrapper is often done as a survey given to students when they receive their graded exam, to give them a structured opportunity to engage in some metacognitive reflection. Here are some questions you might want to include to foster reflection:
- How did you study for this exam? What study strategies did you use?
- If you gave students a pre-exam wrapper, they could compare their intended study strategies with what they actually did. If not, this is another chance for you to list effective study strategies to students.
- What kinds of errors did you make? Where did you lose points?
- This can be particularly useful in courses in which later content builds on earlier content, or in which there is a cumulative final exam. It’s also a chance to list common kinds of errors, to suggest that many students struggle with certain kinds of tasks.
- What was difficult for you in this exam? What was easy?
- What did you do well to prepare for the exam?
- This question can be particularly helpful for students who lack confidence in their ability to succeed in your course.
- What could you do differently to study for the next exam?
- Helping students prepare a “study game plan” for the next exam (and then reminding them of their plan as the next exam approaches – see below) can help students develop a growth mindset.
Using exam wrappers to foster a growth mindset
When preparing for an exam or (in particular) receiving a graded exam, students can engage in negative thinking that fosters a fixed mindset, such as:
- I’m going to do badly on this exam, because this content is so hard.
- It feels like I’m the only one in this class who’s struggling to understand this material.
- I knew I blew this exam – I’m just no good at this subject.
As you design your exam wrapper, you can take the opportunity to include statements that will help your students develop a growth mindset about their learning and performance. An exam wrapper is an opportunity for you to normalize struggle in your class, suggest strategies for effective studying, and offer encouragement to your students.
For example, in a pre-exam wrapper activity, you can include a list of difficult concepts along with a statement like this:
Here’s a list of concepts students have found challenging in the past. Check the ones that you want to particularly focus on when you study for this exam. I want you to know that I’m confident that you all can master these concepts if you study using your lecture notes, the lecture slides, and your textbook. Feel free to contact me or your AI if you have further questions.”
In a post-exam wrapper, you can include a statement such as this:
This exam wrapper activity will help you reflect on how you prepared for the exam, recognize where you did well on the exam, and identify patterns of error or places of difficulty. Every student will benefit from this kind of reflection, regardless of how you did on the exam, because it will help you improve your preparation for the next exam.”
Then, to enhance the impact of your exam wrapper on students’ learning and performance, you can take time before the next exam to remind students of their reflections on the previous exam, with a statement like this:
As you prepare for the next exam, I want to remind you of the reflection activity we completed after the previous exam. If you identified some new study strategies, be sure to try them out, and skip the strategies you decided weren’t as useful. Remember that there are resources on the course Canvas site to help you study, and feel free to come to my office hours or contact your AI if you have questions or if you just want to check your understanding of particular concepts.”
Thus using exam wrappers not only fosters the development of students’ metacognitive skills; it can also help students build a growth mindset. Both of these outcomes can improve students’ learning and performance in all of their college courses and in their lives beyond college.
Stanton, J.D., Sebesta, A.J., & Dunlosky, J. (2021). Fostering metacognition to support student learning and performance. CBE Life Science Education, 20(2): fe3. DOI: 10.1187/cbe.20-12-0289
To learn more about exam wrappers or view examples of wrappers for different disciplines, visit the links below.
- Inclusion through Balanced Reflection, by Cristen Dutcher, Kennesaw State University, from ISSOTL Connect 2021 (14:17 long)
- Exam wrapper examples from STEM courses, from the Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University.
Cognitive Wrappers: Using Metacognition and Reflection to Improve Learning, from José Antonio Bowen.
- A Psychologically-Attuned Assessment Wrapper is one that communicates the potential for growth, includes suggestions for this improvement, and does not inspire identity threat. From the IU Equity Accelerator.