Exam debriefs are typically that: brief. The tests are passed back, score ranges are revealed, and the teacher goes over the most missed questions, identifying and explaining the correct answer. There may be a chance for students to ask questions, but most sit passively. This way of debriefing exams is efficient but has little else going for it. Students miss questions in most cases because they don't know the material, which is the likely result of not having studied enough or not having used effective strategies when studying.
Favero and Hendricks observe, “Despite the fact that the cognitive tasks in college multiply and diversify, students generally apply their similar study techniques across multiple disciplines until those techniques no longer produce adequate results” (p. 325). They note that exam debriefs are a good time to confront study strategy issues. In two sections of a human anatomy course taken mostly by biology and nursing majors, students were invited to debrief their exam during the professor's office hours at any time before the second exam. Fifty-two percent of the students accepted the invitation, with the remaining students serving as a self-selecting control group.
The exam debriefing (ED) process consisted of four parts that the students completed before meeting with the professor. The authors shared the handout given to students:
After completing this ED analysis, students met briefly with the professor to discuss their “findings.”
Favero states, “A significant difference was observed in the mean increase in exam performance from the first exam to the second exam for those students that conducted the ED. The calculated effect size was 0.48, demonstrating a moderate or medium effect size for the ED” (p. 324).
The most common reason by far for missing questions was simply not knowing the basic anatomical information needed to answer correctly or being able to narrow down the answer options but then choosing the wrong one. Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, the most common study strategies used were passive ones: reading the book, taking notes, and reviewing those materials. Only about 25 percent of students reported they discussed the material with others in the class, and less than 15 percent reported active strategies like taking online quizzes.
In the ED process students selected the behavior changes they believed they needed to make. All selected options from the active learning category in part, the authors believe, because those activities were demonstrated, modeled, and used in class. For example, many students reported using flashcards but only as devices that helped them memorize details like definitions. In class, Favero used an activity with flashcards that showed students how flashcards can be used more fruitfully to show relationships between, in this case, anatomical structure and function.
Did specific study behaviors account for the improvement in exam scores, or was it the result of participation in the whole process? The data collected here do not answer that question. It could be the more general approach of putting students in charge of a process through which they encountered themselves as learners who garnered these positive results. Whatever the cause, it's an interesting exploration of an approach that directly involves students in a debriefing process from which they stand to learn more about themselves as test takers.
Reference: Favero, T. G., & Hendricks, H. (2016). Student exam analysis (debriefing) promotes positive changes in exam preparation and learning. Advances in Physiology Education, 40(3), 323–328.
Note: Favero has also written an excellent article on in-class review sessions. Kudos to him for exploring instructional strategies that significantly bolster the learning potential of two class sessions that otherwise receive little attention in the literature.
Favero, T. G. (2011). Active review sessions can advance student learning. Advances in Physiology Education, 35(3), 247–248.