Cliff Rouder, EdD, Pedagogy and Design Specialist
I have such a vivid memory of a student, upon my returning his exam, quickly looking at the grade, crumpling the paper into a wad, and making a 3-point shot into the wastebasket–right in front of me! Why did I spend so much time providing meaningful feedback on the exam? Even more exasperating than seeing my written feedback ignored was seeing similar errors on his next exam! UGH! It never dawned on me that I could do more than say to my students, “Take some time to review my comments so that you can see where you can improve, and don’t hesitate to come to office hours if you have any questions about the comments.”
Unbeknownst to me at that time, there was a term and theory in cognitive and developmental psychology literature called metacognition. Proposed by John Flavell, a professor at Stanford University at the time, metacognition is often referred to as “thinking about one’s own thinking,” and includes a process of self-monitoring, self-evaluation, and self-regulation that leads to more intentional learning practices. While metacognitive strategies can be used in a number of ways to support our students’ learning, we can use our usually higher-stakes summative assessments (exams, projects, etc.) to help students “think about their thinking.” More specifically, we can help students to explicitly reflect on elements of their exam preparation in order to make a plan to improve on the next high-stakes assessment.
Enter the metacognitive activity of exam wrappers. Dr. Marsha Lovett and her colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University are credited with creating the exam wrapper technique. Wrappers were developed in reaction to their findings that many successful high school students were arriving at college with study habits that are ineffective for higher order learning. Exam wrappers ask students to answer a series of questions that require them to reflect on how they prepared for the exam, whether the results were what they expected, and how they might prepare differently for the next exam.
Saundra McGuire, author of Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation, states that
that there is a metacognitive equity gap. Often students from under-resourced public schools may not have yet learned how to reflect on their learning and thus continue to employ study strategies that are not as effective as they can be. While all students can benefit from an exam wrapper, the activity may be especially valuable for these students.
Faculty prepare a series of metacognitive questions that help students think about their preparation and performance on a summative assessment. Carnegie Melon’s Eberly Center has some example exam wrappers for different disciplines. What’s nice is you can tailor these questions to the unique nature of your summative assessment: questions getting at the specifics of students’ study/exam preparation strategies, asking them to assess the types of errors they made on the exam, and asking them to develop a concrete plan to improve are typical.
Exams are returned to students wrapped in a piece of paper with the metacognitive questions. Students are then asked to reflect on the questions and develop a plan for the next exam. They submit a copy of the plan to you for homework or extra credit–whichever way you think works best. You review the plan and seek clarification if responses are not specific enough. You can then remind them of their plan and perhaps check in with the class occasionally to make sure they are following the plan as they prepare for the next exam. If you give your exams online or if you’re a fan of reducing paper, the questions can be posed in Canvas.
Lisa Kurz at Indiana University’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning points out that exam wrappers can also be given to students before they take an exam. While the name is a little bit of a misnomer for this use, she states, “The exam wrapper provided before the exam might ask students to create exam questions at different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, 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.” This works well as a solo, pairs, or small group activity.
If you’d like to learn more about using or adopting one of these exam wrappers or creating your own, feel free to schedule a consultation with the CAT. So, wrap your exam and help your students become metacognitive pros!
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Cliff Rouder serves as Pedagogy and Design Specialist at Temple’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching.