Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Student Rationality: Marks, Risk and Perceived Wasted Effort When Preparing for Exams

I have been observing revealed rationality of students when preparing for exams. My exam in Contemporary Issues in Accounting was divided into two sections: Part A was designed to assess depth of knowledge; Part B to assess breadth of knowledge. Part A comprised four essay questions from which students could select any two. Students were given the essay questions in the third last lecture of the semester - one month before the exam. Part B comprised a series of short answer and calculation questions. Students were given no guidance about the content of these questions. Students were not permitted to take cheat sheets into the final exam ("cheat sheets" is University of Canberra students' slang for when students are allowed to take notes into an exam).

Students were encouraged to work with others to prepare answers for the essay questions prior to the exam. In their exams, it was apparent that most students had prepared extensively for the essay questions they has chosen to attempt. Very few students had prepared for the Part B short answer questions. Several students told me in consultations prior to the exam that their strategy was to prepare for the essays only and not to prepare for the short answer or calculation questions at all. This strategy appeared to be followed by many students from the work displayed in the final exam.

The students who told me about their strategy prior to the final exam justified their choice based on their limited time to prepare for all of their exams. Most of my students faced three exams in three days. One of the subjects that most students were taking had an evil reputation among students and students admitted they were devoting most of their time to that subject. The rationale for this strategy, as it was explained to me, was that there was a perceived strong correlation between effort and marks when preparing for the essay questions as the questions were known. There was a much weaker perceived correlation between effort and marks for the Part B questions. As students did not know what the questions were nor the topics from which they were drawn, they perceived that much of their study time could be "wasted" in that it would not lead directly to higher marks on the exam.

The question facing me for the future is should I pander to the students by providing greater information about the Part B questions prior to the exam. If I do provide them with more information, how much more information is needed to change their behaviour to one that is more satisfying for me; that they prepare thoroughly for the Part B questions and through that, develop a broad understanding of the issues which lead to the learning outcomes of the unit?


James Neill said...

Makes sense to me - students are very rationale with their study efforts - i.e., work towards maximum return on effort in the organic context of their lives. Personally, I treat them as rationale beings and am as transparent as possible in communicating to them about the content of assessment tasks.

Andrew at UC said...

I agree that there is nothing novel in revealing that students are rational in their allocation of time. What is a novel finding, I believe, is the risk aversion they have shown. They were willing to commit effort towards achieving a distinction or high distinction even though the effort for that increment in grade was far greater than the effort needed to get a pass on the other questions. I am not sure if this is purely due to risk aversion rather than failing to appreciate the falling marginal returns from seeking increased grades.