Teaching Spotlight – Analyzing How Students Process Questions On Exams

Alyssa Gutierrez
Photo source: Alyssa Gutierrez

Alyssa Gutierrez is a 4th-year student in the Combined Major in Science Program concentrating on Life Sciences, Computer Science, and Earth & Environmental Science, with a keen interest in teaching & learning, among many things.

In Spring 2020 (pre-COVID-19 disruption) Alyssa put her biology and coding skills to good use to help instructors gain insight into how students interact with, and tackle, exam questions. As part of a Directed Studies project supervised by Pam Kalas and Melissa Guzman, Alyssa documented and analyzed annotations made by first-year students on a Biology final exam.

Alyssa’s project raised a lot of questions that deserve to be examined in future studies, including some food for thought in the context of online assessments (e.g., Do our students have the opportunity to annotate exam questions during online exams? Could that affect their performance?).

Keep reading to learn more about the study and to see an infographic of the study’s findings and the poster Alyssa recently presented at MURC.

What motivated you to do this study?

I was drawn to the underlying motivation of the study, which was to understand at least a fraction of how students process questions and how they are able to communicate their knowledge. As a student myself, I have to visually outline the information I’ve extracted from the question in order to answer it. In that sense, annotations can be, to some extent, a snapshot of a students’ understanding.

What did you learn while doing this study?

During this study, I learned that students are generally drawn to annotating in some way—whether that be through underlining or circling information that may be relevant to the question they’re trying to answer.

How can instructors use these findings in their courses?

Instructors can use these findings in their courses in various ways. For example, some courses tend to use similar questions on exams from previous terms or years. Given this study, it may be helpful for instructors to examine the annotated content on these exams. Are there patterns across the years or terms? If so, perhaps questions can be re-structured in a way that aids students in selecting more relevant information to help answer questions.

Study Infographic:


Poster presented at MURC:

MURC Poster

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