Metacognitive Awareness and the Use of Exam Wrappers in Psychology 101

Dr. Amanda Lipko-Speed, Associate Professor of Psychology, The College at Brockport

In the spring of 2013, I began participating as a STEM faculty fellow in a Professional Learning Community hosted by MCC’s Community Center for Teaching Excellence.   It has been a rewarding experience that has allowed me to engage in timely, focused discussions about the current state of our educational world with colleagues from high schools and colleges around the Rochester area.  It has also provided me with an opportunity to complete a pedagogically relevant action research project within my own college course.  I chose to focus my action research on college students’ metacognitive awareness – the reflection on one’s own thinking, knowledge, and abilities.   This choice stemmed from my own research interests as well as my experiences and investment in undergraduate teaching.  Through my experiences as a college professor, I have been routinely asked by students about the best study strategies and techniques for academic success.  In addition to my teaching experiences, I have an active research program focused on the development of young children’s metacognition.  Thus, when given the opportunity to conduct an action research project, studying metacognition was a natural choice for me.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to collaborate with two gifted colleagues, Dr. Adam Rich and Dr. Theresa Westbay, who were also interested in investigating metacognition in their own action research projects.  Specifically, we chose to evaluate the usefulness and influence a metacognitive survey tool called an exam wrapper (e.g. Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro,Lovett, & Norman, 2010).  Personally, I wanted to know whether repeated completion of exam wrappers would improve students’ metacognitive awareness, lead to more strategic self-regulatory academic behaviors (e.g. study strategies), and potentially even influence students’ academic performance on exams.  I chose to administer the exam wrappers with my fall 2013 section of Principles of Psychology which had 78 students from a range of majors enrolled.  Students completed an exam wrapper approximately one week after each of the first three exams in the course (for logistical reasons, students were unable to complete an exam wrapper after the final exam).  Students were allotted about 25 minutes in class to review their exams and complete the exam wrappers.  The exam wrappers asked them to reflect on their exam preparation, specifically the amount of time they spent studying and the study behaviors and strategies in which they engaged.  The exam wrappers also asked students to review and reflect on possible reasons for incorrectly answered questions.  Finally, the exam wrappers asked students to list any strategies and behaviors they planned to change in preparation for subsequent exams.

Overall, the experience of completing our action research project was meaningful and informative.  The good news is that students do appear to have some metacognitive awareness.  Two of the most commonly reported reasons my students gave on the exam wrappers for answering exam questions incorrectly were metacognitive in nature.  Specifically, students frequently reported that they had missed a question because they had studied the information but could not remember it at the time of the exam or that they knew the concepts but could not apply them accurately on the exam.In order to identify these reasons as why a question was potentially answered incorrectly, students needed to reflect on their knowledge. The first reason states that the knowledge was never retained.  The second reason states that the knowledge was retained but was not processed at a deep enough level.  Whether or not students’ metacognitive awareness was increased through the experience of completing an exam wrapper cannot be determined.  But, I am encouraged by the finding that students are able to reflect metacognitively when considering why they answered questions incorrectly.

Unfortunately, despite demonstrating some metacognitive awareness, my students did not seem to have the ability to translate their awareness into self-regulatory academic behaviors. They reported studying for far less time and for far fewer days than would be recommended. Students also routinely failed to engage in beneficial behaviors such as reading the textbook consistently and meeting or emailing with the professor to ask questions or clarify material.  Most disheartening was that these poor behaviors were engaged in consistently across the semester.  The experience of completing the exam wrappers did not change their study behaviors or strategies.  Interestingly, they consistently reported a desire to change their behaviors but did not follow through.  Not surprisingly, I did not see a change in exam performance across the semester.

One unexpected consequence of conducting this action research project was a significant decline in the number of Principles of Psychology students who visited my office hours this semester.  Due to the large enrollment of this course, I typically post exam grades but do not hand back the actual exams to the students.  As a result, many of my office hours are typically dedicated to meeting with students who wish to review their exams.  By asking students to complete exam wrappers this semester, all students were given the opportunity to review their exams in class.  Thus, far fewer students visited my office hours which has obvious negative implications but also has a few important, unexpected benefits.  For example, students seemed less likely to arrive at my office emotionally charged when they did come.  I believe the process of reviewing one’s exam in a professor’s office comes with an additional amount of pressure not present when one is reviewing an exam in a classroom among peers.  In the past when students would come to review their exams, they were often highly frustrated and emotional which would lead them to focus on things like why a question was poorly worded in their opinion or why their grade was unfair rather than a more productive focus of ways to improve on future exams.

To see my full report on this project, please visit Metacognitive Awareness and the Use of Exam Wrappers in Psychology 101.


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