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I am teaching an exercice section for a group of students who have (rather difficult and long) exams every two weeks. The students are focussed on the exams and barely willing to take the time to understand something because they are so nervous about what they have to write on the next exam which is always this week or next week.

How can I encourage them to still strive for understanding which will be very important for the years to come when the short-term incentives seem to them to be the exact opposite?

They want me to write exam-perfect answers on the blackboard instead of trying to explain to them HOW I find the answers. Also, they believe in the ONE perfect answer and look at me in a reproaching way when I tell them that at some point they have several options.

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    $\begingroup$ What is the reason for the frequent exams? $\endgroup$ – J W Apr 30 '14 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ Although short-sighted, too-literal concern for looming exams is certainly rational. This scenario is an unfortunate side-effect of the "test/exam" version of education. On the other hand, I've observed all too many situations where with less exam pressure students simply waited until the last minute anyway... :) $\endgroup$ – paul garrett Apr 30 '14 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ Would it be possible to change the exams? It is possible to write exams with unseen material where no such "exam perfect" answers exist. If students are measured against their exam results then of course this is what they will focus on. If that is not the aim, then the measurement system really needs to be changed... $\endgroup$ – Nico Burns Apr 30 '14 at 22:46
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    $\begingroup$ You will have to convince them that to pass exams they need to understand what they are doing. But that may depend on how the exams are structured/graded... $\endgroup$ – vonbrand May 1 '14 at 2:06
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    $\begingroup$ @paulgarrett The obvious solution is to have the exams actually test understanding, so this concern is actually helping and not hurting. Unfortunately when you aren't helping to write the exam there's little you can do. $\endgroup$ – PVAL May 1 '14 at 17:50
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Part of the problem is simply that you're trying to combat rationality. Regardless of what level you're teaching, grades are important. They control scholarships and school admissions (be they undergrads or high school students). Doing poorly on an exam can be a death sentence to a grade, and that can mean a lot of bad things for a good student.

Most students really, truly understand that it's better to understand the material. They really do, however, the grade comes this or next week. And that grade will have an influence (however minor on its own) on their academic career. If they need to understand something, they can reread the textbook over the summer. I always try for understanding, but there have certainly been times where I had to say "okay, either I can try to deeply understand this and possibly fail or I can spend the next two days memorizing these special cases so I pass the final". It's unfortunate, but rational and necessary.

The solution really depends how much control you have over the course. Can you reduce some of the exams to weekly quizzes with less grade impact? That can be a good way to test basic competency and familiarity with the material without the grade pressure.

If you absolutely have to abide by the exam schedule (or it's external to your class e.g. a GRE prep or you're a tutor for someone else's course), you could make your tests require a deep understanding; structure questions as proofs and conceptual short answer questions. I do warn you, though, that this may backfire horribly for any number of reasons. Not the least of which is that it's hard to regularly and consistently make a large number of high quality conceptual questions that are really fair to beginners at a topic (often we become blind to the difficulty of conceptual questions about concepts we understand).

Overall, I think this is a very common question in all areas of education. "How can I get students to try and understand instead of trying to min/max their chances of getting an A?" And I don't think there's a perfect answer unless you're in a position to change the system. (Which isn't to say I'm for abolishing all grades, necessarily, but the entire institution is so wrapped up around various metrics that you can't really blame students for recognizing the reality of their situation).

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    $\begingroup$ I do have little control (each involved teacher designs one half of one exam), otherwise, my question would have been quite different. But I want to point out that the students already do poorly (the mean is 40% of the points while the students are quite intelligent and motivated to work). It is my honest conviction that changing their approach is their only chance even on purely grade-oriented grounds. $\endgroup$ – user11235 May 1 '14 at 6:19
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My answer is similar to Jsor's, so if it seems redundant, say so in the comments and I'll remove it.

I have weekly quizzes, each with minimal grade impact. In addition, their grade on a quiz is always replaceable by their grade on the exam nearest that quiz. Finally, the problems on my exams are only minorly different from the problems on my quizzes.

Altogether, these policies encourage students to learn from mistakes they make on the quizzes and to be willing to make such mistakes, since they can recover those points by doing well on the exam.

This brings me to the philosophical point: in order to encourage students to seek understanding rather than knowledge, you must allow (or perhaps even encourage) mistakes. When we reflect, most of us realize that actually making mistakes and seeing why they were mistakes is among the most productive ways to gain understanding. If we actively discourage this in our classrooms, we are thereby actively discouraging one very fruitful way of gaining understanding.

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    $\begingroup$ +1. "If we actively discourage this in our classrooms, we are thereby actively discouraging one very fruitful way of gaining understanding." I can't agree more. $\endgroup$ – Jack Mar 16 '16 at 3:32

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