The Midterm Wrapper: A Performance Intervention That Works
Posted February 4, 2021
By Christie L. Cathey
Midterm is a Learning Opportunity
I teach Introductory Psychology, and like many instructors of freshman-level courses around the country, I’m required to submit midterm grades for my students. The goal of giving midterm grades is for students, who are relatively new to college, to benefit from feedback about their course progress. Mid-semester is, in theory, an ideal time for this feedback, as there is still time for students to make needed adjustments to their academic habits before the end of term. Although I always dutifully submitted my midterm grades, I have to admit that I was never completely convinced of their effectiveness. For example, what do we know about how students actually respond to their midterm grades? Do they even look at them? Do students with low midterm grades take the feedback those grades provide and adjust their behaviors accordingly? Moreover, is it possible that midterm grades have an unintended consequence? For instance, it’s certainly possible that low midterm grades cause some students enough anxiety that they respond by sticking their heads in the sand and avoid thinking about the course altogether. Relatively little research has been conducted on the effects of midterm grades on subsequent course performance, so we really don’t know for certain how students respond to the feedback they provide.
Intervention at Midterm
Recognizing that merely telling students their midterm grade might not be as helpful to students as we’d like, our Introductory Psychology instructional team at Missouri State University has employed numerous midterm interventions aimed at helping students use midterm feedback to improve their course performance by the end of the semester. For example, we found one-on-one meetings with the instructor to be highly effective at increasing students’ performance over the second half of the semester. Each semester, we would invite all students with midterm grades of D or F to meet with us, and in those meetings, we would look together with students at their grades from the first half of the semester, talk with them about their typical study habits and strategies, and help them devise a plan for the second half of the semester. The student would leave the meeting with a “prescription” that listed all the course-specific academic behaviors they plan to engage in through the end of the semester.
Unfortunately, given our high enrollment (over 300 students per section), these meetings were time-consuming for instructors, and even though we discovered effective methods of increasing attendance at these meetings, still, relatively few students actually showed up. Moreover, we wanted to offer an opportunity for all students, not just those with low midterm grades, to take advantage of the benefits of self-reflection and study planning afforded by our midterm meetings. We therefore devised a new midterm intervention we call “the midterm wrapper.” This assignment takes relatively little time on the part of students and the instructor and can therefore be easily offered to all students, even in very large classes.
The Midterm WrapperThe midterm wrapper is a quick and simple, online assignment modeled after the exam wrapper (Lovett, 2013). For an exam wrapper, students reflect on their performance on a single exam and devise a plan for preparing for future exams. For the midterm wrapper, the scope of the assignment is expanded such that students reflect on their performance on all components of the course over the entire first half of the semester rather than on just one single exam. That is, students consider all their behaviors and performances that ultimately went into the determination of their midterm grade.
Students first complete a worksheet that lists all assignments, exams, and other course activities with the corresponding points possible for each. This worksheet is just for students; they don’t turn it in. To complete the worksheet, students access their Blackboard gradebook and, looking at their own grades, they list the points they earned for each component of the course.
After completing the worksheet, students open a link to an online survey that contains the midterm wrapper questions. These questions ask students to refer to the worksheet they just completed while answering questions about specific aspects of their pre-midterm course performance. For example, students list their score on the first exam, reflect on how happy they were with that score, examine a checklist of successful study behaviors, and mark the ones they themselves used to prepare for that particular exam. After answering a number of these sorts of questions about specific assignments, students list three things they plan to do over the second half of the semester to improve their performance (or to maintain it, if they’re happy with their current grade) and they tell us what we can do to better assist their learning. We use Qualtrics to deploy the midterm wrapper, because this online survey tool allows us to easily statistically analyze students’ responses. However, for those without access to Qualtrics, the testing feature within any learning management system would also work just fine. (Click here to see the complete assignment.)
Grading is Manageable, and Feedback Can Be Meaningful
An instructor’s method of grading the midterm wrapper can be tailored to the size of the class to keep it from being an overly taxing and time-consuming task. For example, given the large size of our classes, we don’t read through each students’ responses to every question. Rather, we assign grades based solely on students’ successful submission of the online survey; if they submit it, they receive full credit. Our spot-checking of responses has convinced us that virtually all students take the assignment seriously and provide accurate and thoughtful answers, so we feel comfortable not grading based on content.
We do, however, read each student’s response to the question that asks what we can do to better help with their learning and we then reach out to individual students via email, as needed, based on their response to that question. For example, if a student says they’d like help studying for exams, we might write and remind that student of specific opportunities available for one-on-one tutoring with our undergraduate assistants. Instructors with smaller classes might want to go further and check in with all students individually a few weeks after midterm to see how they’re doing with the three study-related behavioral intentions they set in the wrapper. We believe these efforts on the part of the instructor go a long way toward showing students that we truly care about their success and can turn the midterm wrapper into a conduit for meaningful, caring interaction with individual students.
Evaluating Wrapper SuccessWe were curious to know if completing the midterm wrapper would influence students’ subsequent course performance. We initially piloted the midterm wrapper in the spring semester of 2018 as an optional, extra credit assignment, so we were able to compare those who chose to complete the assignment to those who opted out. We compared these two groups on post-midterm class attendance, weekly homework scores, exam performance, and final semester grade. Though the midterm wrapper takes students less than 15 minutes to complete, our findings suggest it provides quite a bit of pedagogical bang for the buck! Students who completed the assignment performed significantly better on exams that took place after midterm, completed more of the six post-midterm homework assignments, and ended the semester with a final grade that was, on average, 4% higher compared to students who did not complete the assignment.
We recognized the possibility that highly motivated students might have been more likely to complete the midterm wrapper assignment, and that this motivation is what led to differences in post-midterm performance. However, in all analyses, we statistically controlled for students’ performance prior to midterm and still found better performance among students who completed the midterm wrapper.
We were over-the-moon when we saw these findings, as they suggest that a simple, pain-free assignment can lead to notable improvements in students’ course performance; therefore, we now require the midterm wrapper of all Introductory Psychology students at our institution, and we’re continuing to see positive outcomes. For example, we asked students at the very end of the fall 2019 semester to rate their perceptions of the midterm wrapper using a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Even seven weeks after completing the midterm wrapper, students agreed that the assignment…
We plan to do further research to examine which specific aspects of the midterm wrapper actually impact student performance. For instance, is it the process of listing all one’s scores that helps students see where they’ve been leaving points on the table? Or is it devising a plan of action for the second half of the semester and making a somewhat public commitment to that plan by writing it for the instructor to see that makes the difference? Regardless of the precise cause, our research shows that assigning the midterm wrapper is a simple yet effective way for instructors to encourage students to keep their heads out of the sand and to engage with midterm grades in a productive way that leads to academic success.
Lovett, M.C. (2013). Make exams worth more than grades: Using exam wrappers to promote metacognition. In Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning. Kaplan, M., Silver, N., Lavaque-Manty, D., Meizlish, D., eds. San Francisco: Sterling.
Christie Cathey is an associate professor of psychology and Coordinator for Introductory Psychology at Missouri State University. She received her BA in psychology from Hendrix College and her MA and PhD in social psychology from the University of Connecticut. As a student, she had opportunities to spend two years abroad, one in Oxford, England and one in Grenoble, France, and those experiences led to her passion for developing opportunities for students to study abroad. She has organized and led three trips for psychology students to conduct research abroad, including one to China, where the focus was on the study of culture, power, and perspective taking. In 2009, she and her husband hauled their tiny kids to Beijing, China where they both served as a visiting professors at Tsinghua University. When not at work, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two teenage daughters and dominating her competition in spicy food eating events.