The Exam Structure

You know that it's important to look at your midterms to see where you went wrong, don't you? Just sayin'...

When you look at your exam, there are things you should look for:

  • On how many questions did you have to guess the answer?
  • Which lectures/chapters give you problems?
  • Did you devote less time to studying those? (Were you absent for those lectures?) Maybe a neuroscience chapter was particularly challenging, because of all the anatomical terms. On the other hand, maybe you got those questions all correct because you spent so much time on them--at the expense of other material.
  • What kind of questions gave you the most difficulty?
Let me explain what I mean by "kind of question." There's a way of categorizing different multiple-choice questions called Bloom's Taxonomy. I use a slightly less complex version that has three categories of questions:
  1. Factual: assess your knowledge of definitions, terms, and other facts. Answering these questions requires remembering of learned information. For example:

    Who wrote The Principles of Psychology in 1890?
    (a) Wilhelm Wundt
    (b) Sigmund Freud
    (c) William James
    (d) B. F. Skinner

  2. Application: evaluate your ability to apply learned factual knowledge to a new situation, or to solving a problem. You'll have to have the background knowledge, but also the ability to see how it relates to a previously unseen example. For example:

    Assuming the Weber fraction is 0.03, given a 1,000 g weight, what is the JND?
    (a) 1,000 g
    (b) 3 g
    (c) 30 g
    (d) 0.03 g

  3. Conceptual: tests your capacity to see patterns, relate knowledge from different areas, evaluate evidence. Not only do you have to have the background knowledge, you've got to be able to analyze it, synthesize it with new information, and evaluate what you know. For example:

    Which of the following phenomena of operant conditioning contains within it a form of classical conditioning?
    (a) latent learning
    (b) overjustification effect
    (c) secondary reinforcement
    (d) delay of gratification
Multiple choice exams usually contain a large number of factual questions. There will be a few application questions, and also a few conceptual ones. It's hard to write good conceptual questions, and they can be quite challenging to answer. If you're not doing well on the factual questions, you're probably going to struggle with the other kinds as well.

But problems just with application and conceptual questions reveal that your understanding isn't as...deep as it could be. You may be great at memorizing definitions, but that's not all there is to taking a (well-designed) multiple choice exam.

(BTW, Bloom's Taxonomy can also be used in short-, medium-, and long-answer exams. In fact, I use it in mine. For example, in my "medium-length" questions, I ask students to 1. define a term, 2. give an example, and 3. explain why it's important or what other concepts it relates to. See? Bloom's Taxonomy.)

In case you must know, the answer to all the questions above is (c). When in doubt, pick (c), right? ;-)

Why aren't you studying?


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