Helping Students Learn from Tests

Making exams more about learning | Helping students learn from returned exams | Feedback
Testing strategies

Tests are more than just a way to assess student learning – if designed effectively, they can act as ways to continue to help students learn the content.  However, this does not just happen randomly – it requires significant thinking both before the test is administered and after.  Below are various tips and strategies that can be used to ensure that students are learning while being formally assessed.

Making exams more about learning

  • Before an exam, explain the content that will be covered, and the format of the test. This can include such information as the types of questions, potential point breakdown, and time limit. 
    • Giving out a study guide is typically beneficial. It cuts down on the odds of a student being caught off guard on a test, and helps convey your specific expectations.1
  • For certain topics and types of tests, you can have students create their own question to answer related to the content. This problem can be graded by the quality of their question and/or answer. This can be done either during the course of the class, or on the actual exam.2
  • Make sure that your test covers what the course covers, and that each question brings value – don’t use throwaway questions or answers.
  • Make tests short. Unless a time constraint is necessary or is a crucial component, minimize it as a factor by making a test short enough that all students can finish it without feeling rushed.
  • When making multi-part problems, write them in a way that students that do not know the first part (or get it incorrect) can still complete the later parts.1
  • If an exam is out of circulation and use, consider making it available for studying purposes (without answers). It gives students a concrete example of the format and sample questions, allowing them to focus on the content.
  • Require students to defend their answer and give justification. By doing so, blind-guessing loses most of its effectiveness, and students that get a wrong answer with proper rationale can receive partial or full credit.3
  • Offer a "second-chance" sheet with the initial exam. For short-answer exams, allow students to write down any questions they were not sure of onto the sheet of paper. After the exam, students are allowed to take that sheet home and answer any questions they wrote down and turn in it during the next class session. When the exams were returned, students earned partial credit for any question they missed on the initial exam, but answered correctly on their second-chance sheet.
  • Give the same quiz as a pretest and post-test. At the beginning of the course, give a short quiz over the material that will be covered during the term (but don't return it). Towards the end of the term, give the same quiz again. By returning both at the same time, students can see their individual growth and see their current weaknesses.9

Helping students learn from returned exams

  • Create an in-depth grading key for students to use.
    • For essay tests, this should include one or two example answers that would have received full marks.
    • For multiple-choice tests, include explanations for not only why a specific answer is correct, but also why the incorrect ones are wrong.
  • During the class after an exam, give a short quiz of the 3-5 most commonly missed questions. This works as an easy way to help them earn a few points back, and see if they actually learned the material.4
  • After an exam, break down where the information related to each answer came from on an exam (such as from supplementary readings, lectures, or the textbook). Students can then use this information to look back at their own study habits.
    • Likewise, you can give students a slightly more formal way to look back their learning with a post-test survey or exam wrapper for them to see where issues appeared and why.5
  • For multiple-choice or true-false, offer the option for test corrections for any problem they got wrong; a student can earn back partial credit by correcting the problem, stating why the correct answer is right, and writing where they found the answer (lecture notes, textbook, etc.).6
  • Some instructors set up a "test re-take," allowing groups of students to re-take the exam as a group and to allow for a potential increase in their individual grades.


  • On an exam, place an emphasis on working through the process, not just the correct answer. Partial credit for showing clear understanding is worthwhile and encourages students to try all problems.1
  • If it is possible within the course framework, have each student meet with either the professor or a TA to grade their exam. It helps to identify problems in a student’s thought-process, forces students to rethink through their answers, and overall encourages learning.3
  • If an exam is about content, and not writing quality, focus all of the feedback on what was written, not how they phrased it. While grammar and spelling is important, it should not be the focus of feedback for most tests. This helps students pinpoint what is actually important.7
  • For larger exams, a two-step process can help with the overall learning process. First, students take a traditional exam. Afterwards, they are expected to grade their exams, taking a critical look at what they did right and wrong (and why).2

Testing Strategies

  • Mastery Learning – Tests are offered repeatedly until hitting a threshold score and show a level of mastery over the content. Between testing opportunities, students are expected to work with others to improve their knowledge base. Online quizzes work well for this.
  • Frequent testing – By giving numerous smaller tests both covering less content and worth fewer points, emphasis is placed not on the weight of any single test, but rather on learning the content for them.
  • Collaborative testing – Students first take an exam on their own, and then compare their answers before finalizing their choices. Students have to rationalize their answers not only to themselves, but also their peers.8
  • Make sure that your questions align with your learning objectives. If you want students to show understanding of a concept, don’t have them answer recall-based questions about the topic.  Keep in mind Bloom’s Taxonomy.1

Source Information

1. Felder, Richard M. (2002). Designing Tests to Maximize Learning. Retrieved online: North Carolina State University.

2. Weimer, Maryellen. (2012). How Can I Make My Exams More about Learning, Less about Grades? Retrieved online: Magna Publications Inc.

3. Weimer, Maryellen. (2012). Making Exams More about Learning. Retrieved online: Faculty Focus: Higher Ed Teaching Strategies from Magna Publications.

4. Bothell, Tim. Increasing Learning When Returning Exams. Retrieved online: Brigham Young University Faculty Center.

5. Center for Teaching Excellence. Help Students to Learn from Returned Tests. Retrieved online: Center for Teaching Excellence, Duquesne University.

6. Henderson, Charles, & Harper, Kathleen A. (2009). Quiz Corrections: Improving Learning by Encouraging Students to Reflect on Their Mistakes. Retrieved online: The Physics Teacher.

7. Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative. (2012). Assessments that Support Student Learning. Retrieved online: Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative.

8. Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence. (2014). Testing Strategies That Help Students Learn. Retrieved online: Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, Penn State.

9. Deeter, Laura. (2003). Incorporating Student Centered Learning Techniques into an Introductory Plant Identification Course. Retrieved online: North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture.