Using Cumulative Strategies to Help Students Retain Content – Part I

As faculty we know why students don’t like cumulative exams…they have to go back and study stuff they’ve already been tested on! Research shows that is exactly the reason we should be using cumulative exams; regular, repeated encounters with content lead from memorization to understanding. However, students may not be familiar with studying for long-term retention; here are a few examples to help them.

Use previous or potential test questions.

  • Display a question at the beginning of the session. “Here’s a test question I’ve asked previously about X. How would you answer it?” Give them time to talk with each other and look in their notes. It’s a great way for students to discover if they have helpful material on that topic. Furthermore, test questions keep students engaged and attentive until they’re answered, especially if several possible answers are proposed and discussed.
  • As a wrap-up exercise, have students create a possible test question. “This material on self-efficacy is fair game for the exam. Jot down ideas for a test question.” Ask several students to propose possible questions and identify those that are good. Create a question from one of their suggestions and use it in a session the following week. If one of those student-suggested questions ends up on the test, students are likely to take this activity seriously.
  • Let students propose potential test questions. Post good, student-generated possible test questions (without the answer) and give the author a bonus point. Maybe one or two show up on the exam. Getting students involved in creating test questions makes them think about questions, not just answers, and this student-generated test bank can be used for review across the course.

If students are regularly encountering previous content in the course, that makes studying for cumulative exams easier. It also highlights relationships and coherence between content chunks.

Adapted from Maryellen Weimer, PhD
Faculty Focus