3 Ways to Help Students Learn From Their Tests

Participating in a review exercise right after a test is an effective way for students to strengthen their metacognitive skills.

December 12, 2022
Tony Tallec / Alamy

Tests gather more than just a snapshot of students’ content mastery. They also reflect students’ strengths and weaknesses in studying, time management, and other executive functions. For example, a student who does well with matching or rote definitions may be demonstrating her strength in memorizing; that same student may struggle with short-answer questions, illuminating difficulty with synthesis or application.

To capitalize on these brain insights and to take students further in their post-test metacognition, we can teach them to do a “test replay.” This process allows students to reflect on the learning process, not just the content, empowering them to develop executive functions within the context of improving test grades.

Think about playing a sport, instrument, or video game. You improve quickly because the feedback on your performance is immediate. Miss a shot? Try again, right away. Hit a sour note on your clarinet? Adjust your fingers and try again. This instant feedback loop enables fast progress and, in part, explains why learning in these contexts feels so good. We can borrow from these experiences and offer quicker feedback for students by helping them through the test replay process.

I’ve come up with three effective strategies that teachers can use to help students strengthen their executive function skills.

1. Instant Replay

Encourage students to do a brain dump right after a test, capturing their ideas, questions, and surprises. Instant replays can also include a prediction of how they performed, as well as an evaluation of how well their studying prepared them. Because we want students to internalize these metacognitive approaches, it’s important to allow them to explore formats for capturing their instant replay ideas; a binder paper, a digital tool, and an audio recording are great options and offer a chance to find what each student prefers. 

In my experience, I’ve found that teachers who have students do a 5- to 10-minute post-test instant replay see a positive impact on student test scores, as well as better future test experiences. 

Student feedback also offers teachers a chance to adjust their assessments and instruction; if many students reflect feeling unprepared or overprepared for certain test elements, teachers can modify their approach in coming lessons. Consider offering the replays as opportunities but not for points; the omission of a graded aspect will encourage more honesty and openness.

Here are some instant replay guiding questions: 

  • What do I remember about the content? (What did the test ask about?)
  • What do I remember about the format? (How did the test look?)
  • How well did I do?
  • What was I prepared well for?
  • What parts felt shaky to me? 
  • What did my teacher seem to emphasize or not cover well? 
  • How did the test compare with my expectations? 
  • What surprised me? 

Students may note that questions on the test seemed to come from these sources: 

  • Class notes
  • The readings
  • The practice test
  • The lecture slides
  • What my teacher repeated or emphasized
  • Videos we watched in class
  • I’m not sure

2. Slow-motion replay

When scores come back, you can guide students through a deeper examination of their thinking and studying—shifting focus beyond the content and scores. Allow space for students to have some thoughts and emotions about their scores, and offer the perspective that any wrong answers are simply learning moments in which they can improve their studenting habits. You can guide them through a discussion of the most commonly missed questions or problems on the test. Here are some questions for the slow-motion replay: 

  • What clues are built into the test question?
  • How did you identify the wrong answers or narrow down possible options? 
  • Can you walk me through your think-aloud on this problem?
  • Can you deconstruct what this question is asking you to do?
  • What strategies did you use to make sure you understood the prompt? 

These powerful conversations can lead to students sharing their own study and test-taking strategies with one another. Often, students know of resources or online study tools before we teachers do! For example, my students have found publisher study guides and ways to turn PowerPoint slides into flash cards.

3. Write new plays

After some post-test replays, students will likely have ideas of how to better prepare for upcoming exams. Encourage them to discuss their strategies as a class and write them somewhere they’ll find them later. If you know the next test date, have students denote it in their calendars or planners, and then guide them to schedule their studying backwards from the test date. It’s akin to writing a new play after playing a game and learning from your experience.

For example, students can consider the following potential new plays for an upcoming test.

  • Match the test format with your study approach (multiple choice, matching = memorize using flash cards, use questions at the end of chapters; essays/short answer = memorize some sentence starters, write practice essays, memorize vocabulary and key facts).
  • Schedule time to check in with the teacher three to five days before the test.
  • Schedule studying for smaller chunks across three to five days.
  • Clear your social schedule the day before the test.
  • Review before bedtime.
  • Drink enough water.

Offering students the chance to learn through their test experiences builds their executive function skills and improves their performance on future assessments. The self-examination and self-awareness that your students build will serve them in class and throughout life, as they utilize the replay process to continually improve their outcomes. 

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Filed Under

  • Assessment
  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Critical Thinking
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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