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Tuesday 10 March 2015

Improving the Exam Experience - A Research Proposal

I've read through quite a few reports on improvements in university learning in the last year. A few ideas have made quite an impression. Ideas like the flipped classroom paradigm, in which the lecture time is spent working through homework problems with the guidance of the instructor and peers, and instruction and note-taking happens before the class with the use of online videos.

However, I've only seen a few pieces on improving the exam experience. Students spend a lot of time thinking about their exam performance, but besides writing good questions (which is a difficult art in itself), not much thought on the instructor side seems to have gone into it.

With that in mind, I propose to redevelop the experience of the sit-down-and-write style of exam. Specifically, I want to see if there's a way to allow to students to customize their own experience in ways that still maintain fairness such that every student is given the same exam.

Each of the following environmental factors is, I assume from my very limited background research, capable of improving exam performance either by quelling anxiety or by aiding recall of information. However, the idea isn't to see if there are differences between the factors by some factorial design, but to see if students can improve their performance by making their own informed choices of their individual exam environments.


Circulation is valuable. Also, I've heard in a study skills seminar that there are specific exercises you can do to improve the use of both brain hemispheres at once. While exams are being handed out, an examiner could incorporate these exercises into their speech at the beginning of the exam. Students will decide on their own if they want to participate.

Those include, in order of increasing obnoxiousness:

  • Running a pen, pencil, or finger closely in front of your field of vision in a figure eight such that it's only in front of one eye, then the other, and back again a few times.
  • Patting your head and rubbing your tummy. Switch hands. Repeat.
  • Gently pinch your nose with your left hand, and wrap your right hand around to pinch your left earlobe. Once you've done that, switch hands and lobes so that your right hand is on your nose and your left hand is on your right earlobe. Switch as fast as you can without assaulting someone or choking on your gum.

Paper Colour

Credit to Linda Noakes for teaching me this, and to Carl Schwarz for confirming it independently. Colours matter for evoking certain mindsets. For example, orange is associated with increased anxiety. Since many exams are already given in multiple formats with the questions in a scrambled order or slightly altered. Using exam-positive colours seems like an easy transition.

Students could choose, by way of seating choice, between neutral white paper, blue papers for calmness, or green for memory enhancement. If scrap paper is involved, choices don't even need to be related to seating.

Priming Questions

Priming is centered around the idea that making someone process some idea causes them to take on some of the traits of that idea. The most common example I've seen is where subjects are asked to arrange a  simple sentence by arranging four out of five words from a list, and do to this for a collection of lists. However, within each list is a word associated with a particular abstract idea, such as old age ("wrinkled","Florida", or "retirement"), or money ("cash","investment", or "retirement").  The groups primed for old age walked out of the testing room slower than those in a placebo group; the groups primed for money acted with less empathy than a placebo group in an exercise that followed.

It has also been used in an exam setting to positive result by having students start a test by answering a question about being smart or imagining themselves in a position of esteem based on intelligence.

In the proposed exam environment, the first graded question of every exam could be to choose one of a few priming questions to be answered in 1-2 sentences, such as

  • "What would like to study if you were a top scholar?", 
  • "Describe the best you, you can be."
  • "What makes your ideal vacation spot so special?"

My main concern is that, given I want all the student decisions to be informed, and the priming examples I've found were of unintentional or covert priming, how well would this work for questions that are transparent like this?


We have gotten used to working in environments with music on almost constantly. A silent exam room is unnatural and silence effectively amplifies any disruptive sounds that do happen. In most cases, exam takers are free to bring in their own earplugs, which some do, but that's still only a partial solution.

It would likely be disruptive to have music playing for everyone, regardless of how innocuous. To allow students to bring in their own music is to allow exam related material in. However, mp3 players are cheap enough now that one could be assigned to every student with their exam without increasing the cost substantially, assuming that most of the mp3 players are retrieved afterwards. A quick search finds 4Gb (~500 songs) mp3 players being sold for $13 individually (Tiger Direct), which suggests they could be purchased for $10 in bulk units of 100 or more.

Each mp3 player could be loaded with the same playlist, and the playlist could be composed of copyright-free music selected by the professor and the students. I doubt it would be particularly hard to make a way to load dozens of mp3 players with the same playlist automatically.

Ethics Considerations

If these factors aid students, I'd want the world to know. That means results need to be published, and that in turn means this is a proposal of research involving humans. The main potential for harm is in accidentally making someone's exam more difficult than necessary by adding to it the burden of having to make additional decisions, or by aiding students unequally by their choices. For example, if the students that chose the green paper and chose not to listen to music did better than the rest, am I doing a disservice to the other students. Exams would have an open question at the end regarding feedback, and I can check for effects from specific choices with multiple regression and perhaps with propensity scores, and scale as necessary.

Also, students will be fully informed of the intent and studied effects of each of the environmental factors listed above. A lot of literature review is required on my part to verify each of these, and to hopefully find additional factors as replacements or additions.

Even if the exam experience seems dark, it can be made more pleasant; festive, even!

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