One history exam, and what may be learned from it

One of my favorite things as a teacher is to experiment. With no committees or beauracracy, no forms or permits, every year I have at my disposal every year 120 guinnea piggs

One of my favorite things as a teacher is to experiment. With no committees or bureaucracy, no forms or permits, every year I have at my disposal every year 120 Guinea pigs, who can’t really object to the experiments I run on them. Well, they could object, but that is one experiment that to this day has always failed. They never do. As scientific experiments what I do is of no real value, of course, but sometimes they can provide various thoughts and insights, that might serve me well as a teacher down the road. So yes, there will be numbers, and charts, and averages here. But there will be no regression analysis, and the results have no validity. If you find it easier, you can call the following an observation.
By the way, if you are less interested in general learning issues, and more interested in matters of gender, feel free to jump straight to the heading on gender.

But first, let us try to think back on those good old days, when we ourselves were students. How did you go about studying for an exam? Personally, I almost never studied for them. Sadly, it wasn’t because I was too smart to need to, but rather due to a combination of a school that didn’t put too much emphasis on scholarly achievements, a lack of desire on my behalf to put in the effort, and the fact that even if I wanted to, I didn’t really know what to do to study effectively for the exam. For larger exams I would, I assume, read the textbook (for taking notes in class never really happened), and when the matriculation exam in history loomed closer, I made a list of events and dates that took up three pages, and I read and reread it several times over the three days prior to the exam. Not much of an example for my students, I know. There were, of course, other examples. Mostly girls, who would take notes in class, which they would read coming up to the exams, and reread them, and highlight important parts, and various other activities I never really understood. But they also, I think, did it because they didn’t know any other way. Actually, I don’t remember anyone ever trying to teach me the skill of studying for an exam.

(True, one could argue that studying for exams is not an important skill, since exams are an artificial school situation, that has almost nothing to do with real life. Unlike, for instance, writing papers, which does exist in the world, and was a skill the school did try, a bit at least, to teach us. However, making a plexiglass pencil holder is also not a skill that has come much in handy in my life, and yet we were taught how to do it. This is to day that there is value to being familiar with a wide range of tools, that can be adapted and matched to the task at hand. In this sense, the larger and fuller your toolbox is, so your ability to deal with various tasks, especially new and strange ones, is greater, and hence there is definitely value in knowing which strategies are efficient for studying for an exam, and which are not.

My interest in the question of suitable tools for learning has grown over the last couple of years, when I realized that my students were also never taught how to best prepare for exams. Now, you could say that they should learn through trial and error. Which would be great, if this wasn’t the exact thing that the school system works on rooting out of children’s consciousness and habits, making things they used to do naturally and instinctively at a young age big no-no’s as students regimented into the school system. The result is that what they don’t know how to do, they don’t even try. So how do they study for exams? Mostly, by doing what their teacher told them in class to do – read their notes, highlight important parts, and so on.
and how do they know if it’s working? That is simple – the exam is graded. If they received a good grade, they go on doing the same things. And if the grade wasn’t goo? Well, then they just go on doing the same things. Because they don’t know any other ways. They also don’t have meaningful tools to check themselves for what worked and what didn’t – was it a subject they didn’t understand well? Did they not study long enough? Were they not concentrated enough when studying? Were they using the wrong techniques and tools to prepare for the exam? These are questions that no one ever asked them, and there is no reason they should know how to ask themselves.

So, what should we do with this?

Over the past couple of years, I found that there was an entire field of educational research, which is sadly lacking in Israel. One of the posts I ran into dealt exactly with this question – 12 tips to crush your final exams. And so, for the last exam held this year, I asked my students to answer three short questions:
1. How many hours did they spend studying for the exam?
2. Over a period of how many days did they study?
3. What did they believe would be their grade on the exam?

And now, for the numbers

It should be noted that the data is from a scientific class, which is regarded the strongest class in school, academically. However, there are quite a few students, mostly girls, who are more inclined to the humanities than to science.

The average grade of the entire class in this exam was 82.9 (the Israeli system uses a 100-point scale). The exam was quite extensive, and included a large part of what the students will need to know for their matriculation exam in history next year. Uncharacteristic of me, the exam included, apart from matriculation-style questions and a high-order thinking skills question, multiple-choice questions as well.

The average study period for the entire class was 5.5 hours, with one exception of 25 hours of study, which skews the average up to a little over 6 hours.

As can be seen, the average score rises almost in a linear line up to 10 hours of study for the exam, with a drop in grades for those students who studied for more than 10 hours. However, this data is skewed, since the fourth group has only three grades in it, with a very large standard deviation. Minus one exceptionally low grade in this group, the linear tendency is continued. This would suggest that indeed, studying longer for an exam does improve your grade.

When examining the spacing effect that is widely discussed in educational research, we can see that there is only one distinct difference – bunching all hours of studying for an exam into one day is less efficient than spreading it over a number of days. However, it is hard to draw a clear-cut conclusion, as for almost all students, studying for more days also means more hours. A different option for reading the data is that the students don’t know how to best utilize a period of several days in order to achieve better results.

Another angle I looked at is the connection between the number of hours of studying for the exam and the grade the students believed they would receive.

In this chart we can see a picture similar to that of the connection between the number of study hours and the actual grade, with a distinct spike in the group that studied between 7 and 10 hours, and a similar drop in the group that studied a larger number of hours. Two preliminary conclusions may be drawn from this:
1. More hours of studying for an exam improves your self-confidence when taking the exam, confidence that could very likely improve your actual grade.
2. Studying too much for an exam might actually indicate a lack of studying throughout the year, and/or a very large deficit in confidence in one’s knowledge and ability.

From this it might be possible to derive a rule of thumb as to the optimal time of studying for an exam: study for as long is it improves your confidence in your knowledge and understanding, and stop the moment you feel that further study only makes you doubt yourself.

So far in general terms. And now, a bit of gender issues

16 girls and 16 boys took the exam. To remind you, this is a strong academic class, and the students had to pass a test and an interview to get into it. This means that from the get go, the class is populated by those students, who are relatively confident of their scholastic abilities. This fact makes the following charts especially interesting.

When looking at the study time of boys and girls separately, we can see that both groups divided their study time over and average of 2.25-2.5 days. However, the study time in hours is much higher for the girls than for the boys. Based on the partial conclusions we drew earlier, we would expect to see two things:
1. The average grade for the girls will be higher than for the boys;
2. The grade assessment, which indicates the students’ self-confidence, will also be higher for the girls than for the boys.

Care to make a guess as to the actual results?

Indeed, the girls’ average grade is significantly higher than that of the boys. But their grade assessment is slightly lower than that of the boys, who in turn were almost spot on in assessing their grade in the exam.

As mentioned, this is not representative of anything. But in my opinion, it speaks rather loudly. Without entering into the eternal and useless debate on nature vs. nurture, this chart presents a large part of the additional difficulty that girls and women face in our society. The gap between the girls’ achievements and their self-evaluation is a strong explanation, in my view, to the differences we still see between men and women in grownup society. If you believe you will be successful, there is a greater chance that you would indeed succeed, if only due to the fact that people tend to believe what you send out into the world.

So what can we do with it?

First and foremost, talk about it. With our students and amongst ourselves as teachers and parents. Bring out the factors that are hidden: talk about self-confidence and self-esteem, what builds them up and what is liable to destroy them; talk about an environment that cultivates self-confidence, an environment that makes it all right to err, to offer suggestions and ideas even when you’re not sure of them, to think together.

And the same should be done with studying for exams – examine the data collected and repeat the exercise. Try and repeat it in several other subjects, test different techniques and tools for studying for exams, find out which is the best way for each and every student to prepare for their exams. True, the current school system is not built to encourage this, and does almost everything possible to discourage such attempts. But if we don’t try and err, how can we teach our students to learn from their mistakes? If we don’t speak and think aloud, with them, in the classroom, about what works and what doesn’t, how can we expect them to do so on their own?


A quote widely used in the educational sphere nowadays states that “All a child needs is for one adult to believe in them”. Boy, what a pile of rubbish. Believing in children is undoubtedly a necessary precondition and an important starting point for education, but woe to the educator who suffices themselves in this. We have so much more work to do with them beyond just believing in them.

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1 thought on “One history exam, and what may be learned from it

  1. Pingback: מבחן אחד בהיסטוריה, ומה שאפשר (אולי) ללמוד ממנו | perlsteindvir

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