TRAINING STUDENTS FOR ONLINE EXAMS REDUCES COGNITIVE OVERLOAD

Teaching to the test doesn’t work. But teaching students about the test is imperative. Not only that, exam performance IS a thing, and you can assist students to get better at that performance. It’s all about mitigating cognitive load.

GAME TIME – Any sports person will tell you that match fitness is everything. Regardless of how much you prepare, you never achieve the same level of fitness and game knowledge compared to actually playing. Why? Because when the real thing happens, not only do nerves and adrenaline consume vast amounts of energy, interfering with the ability you have coming to the surface, but lots of other unexpected occurrences happen, all leading to increased cognitive load, and leading to exhaustion quicker. The cognitive load can be so debilitating that the player has to rely on muscle memory to get them through. When a student sits an exam, adrenaline and anxiety will naturally surge through their veins. Helping them revise the content is a must, but importantly, helping them become more familiar with the game/exam context is climactical, and this can be achieved by training students to automaticity with exam technique.

ABOUT THE TEST

1. Exam layouts

 Show students, and get them used to, the layout of the online exam. The more they see the module and layout of the exam and understand what the expectations are of each section, the less pressure they’ll feel when they see the real thing.  

Of particular importance with students having to complete exams online is detailing the processes involved if they experience technical issues. Take them through the procedures so if it happens during the exam they don’t lose all confidence and panic. ALSO: Ensure students have read the academic integrity policy and that you discuss it repeatedly – the more you talk about academic integrity the more of it you’ll get.

MANAGEABLE Student
cognitive load
 Student A – no trainingStudent B – training
Before beginning exam20%20%
Exam layout5%0%

2. Question requirements

Ensure students know what each question is demanding of them.

How long is a piece of string?

What does a short answer look like? What gets you full marks? What does a long answer look like? What gets you full marks? How much working out is necessary? How much detail is required?

Don’t expect students to guess the answers to these questions. Students who have to worry about what constitutes a good answer expend lots of valuable cognitive load. Model the expectations by showing previous examples, past exams, etc.

Manageable student
cognitive load
 Student A – no trainingStudent B – training
Before beginning exam20%20%
Exam layout5%0%
Exam content 30%0%

IN THE EXAM

1. Time training

Training students with timings of questions in exams will significantly propitiate cognitive load. It’s one thing to know what the question demands of you, but another to actually do it in a stressed environment. If a student isn’t used to the pressure of time, the longer the exam goes on, the greater the likelihood of their cognitive load increasing and their performance reducing as they panic with the evaporation of time. So, get them to practice doing a mock of a section in the exam – let them experience what it’s like to type in the allocated time – do their fingers get tired? What’s it like to upload if necessary etc. The more practice they get the better, but if you are running out of lesson time to train students, at least give students the chance to practice once – just one section that requires an upload process for example.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-2.png

The other aspect of time training is in helping students to set personal timers. Obviously, the online exam doesn’t have all the usual cues that an invigilated exam offers: a large clock, a warning by the invigilator of 5 minutes to go, and even the cues of students completing and organising their work on the next desk. But an advantage of online exams is that students can set their own alarms to negotiate each individual section of the exam, and not accidentally spend too much time on a certain section:

Manageable student
cognitive load
 Student A – no trainingStudent B – training
Before beginning exam20%20%
Exam layout5%0%
Exam content 30%0%
Exam timing training20%0%

2. Editing their work

Rereading responses is difficult for exhausted students to do at the end of a lengthy exam. It is usually at this point that they have a sense of relief, and the last thing they want to do is reread what they’ve done. Of course, it’s madness not to, to ensure there are no silly mistakes, particularly in multiple choice questions, or content mistakes. Even checking for structural, punctuation and/or spelling issues could benefit the overall grade. 

So, I have to build that practice into their normal way of working, so it becomes a part of the process, and not an add on. This can really only be achieved by repeatedly physically getting students to do it: at the end of each ‘mock’ assessment, stop the test and get students to spend 4 – 5 minutes in dedication to proof reading…and explain the rationale, repeatedly: I always tell my students they WILL lose more marks with errors (they can fix) than they are able to gain by writing more response in the last 5 minutes. But without it being a normal way of working, exhausted students won’t do it automatically.   

Manageable student
cognitive load
 Student A – no trainingStudent B – training
Before beginning exam20%20%
Exam layout5%0%
Exam content 30%0%
Exam timing training20%0%
Editing responses5%0%

3. Being professional

Not panicking in certain situations is crucial in reducing cognitive load. Taking students through possible scenarios will help to calm them if the situation presents in the exam, scenarios such as:  If you’re running out of time what should you focus on to get you the most marks? What to do if you can’t answer a question – do you panic and lose total focus for the rest? Should you move on and come back to questions? Are you aware that the brain will warm up and so coming back later may be easier than it is now? This last point is absolutely crucial to convey to students. As the exam progresses, lots of the exam content itself may trigger or cue retrieval of content that couldn’t previously be answered, so teaching students this metacognitive notion could make a significant difference to their overall performance.

Manageable student
cognitive load
 Student A – no trainingStudent B – training
Before beginning exam20%20%
Exam layout5%0%
Exam content 30%0%
Exam timing training20%0%
Editing responses5%0%
Being professional 10%5%

As you can see by the very much made up numbers, the cognitive load experienced by Student A is significantly greater than Student B, and would indubitably affect performance in the exam. The student’s knowledge would have to fight a great deal to break through the pressure. 

BEGIN NOW!

The more you do something the better at it you get, provided of course you’re doing it the right way. Students don’t really get that many opportunities to learn to negotiate the exam environment on their own, especially in the current context of moving to online non-invigilated exams, and so providing them with such training is critical. 

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more thoughts on education in general.  

Author: paulgmoss

I live and breathe education. I try to teach what I know about learning. This blog represents ideas I have about education at the time of writing. I expect my ideas to change.

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