The Exam Autopsy

Without exception, the students who took the time to perform their own exam autopsy scored higher on subsequent exams.

Challenges to exam questions by students were often my most stressful meetings. A memorable moment occurred when my student dropped in during office hours after an exam, guns blazing. Before he sat down, he was already mounting his case of how the exam was “unfair.” He just knew several of his answers should be counted as correct. He did poorly on the exam and was there to set things right. 

Manners aside, this student had every right to request a review of the exam. I welcome the chance to review exam questions with students one-on-one. It is important in the student’s learning process to understand why the right answer is right, and why wrong answers are wrong. 

Me: Come in! Yes, let’s review your exam together.

Student: Several of your questions were not even covered in the lectures. I should get those points back!

Me: Okay, let’s review this question here. You answered D, which was incorrect. What is the correct answer?

Student: Uhhh. I don’t know. It wasn’t in your lecture.

(I show the student the exact slide in the lecture notes where the answer can be found.)

Student: Well, I still think D should be counted correct, too.


Have you had these moments? It was clear the student didn’t know the right answer, but he also couldn’t discern the wrong answer. To get to the bottom of where students can improve, I implemented the “exam autopsy” in my courses—a process that all but killed superfluous exam question challenges.

The Exam Autopsy in Action

An exam autopsy, or exam post-mortem, is an exercise the student must perform before they come to see me to ask for points back. I have made it available to students in both paper and electronic format. Regardless of the format, this exercise forces the student to think about their performance and process, rather than focusing on individual exam questions.

My exam autopsy form attempts to uncover some key forensic evidence:

  • How many hours per week did the student study for my course?
  • What were her study methods—did she re-read lecture slides, highlight notes, re-watch the lecture capture, read the textbook? Did she engage with study groups, online videos, or any other method?
  • How much sleep did he get the night before the exam? 
  • Did she experience test anxiety during the exam? 
  • Did he change answers during the exam? 

For the student in my office in the scenario above, I asked him to fill out the form right there in my office. I also asked the student to explain the correct answers to questions he missed, before we reviewed those items.

Students who go through this exercise of digging deeper into their exam-taking shortcomings usually have little ammunition left once they cross my office threshold. In fact, once I started requiring an exam autopsy prior to an exam review appointment, question challenges dropped dramatically. To be sure, items that were miskeyed or performed poorly across the board (usually due to my error) were adjusted on exams. However, the well-written questions prevailed when students were forced to be honest about their true understanding of the material. 

Initial Results and Next Steps

There are usually two reasons why good students do poorly on exams: insufficient knowledge and careless mistakes. When the student in my office finished his exam autopsy, we discovered he didn’t study some of the lectures on the exam (which explained his contention the subject was not covered!). We also determined that he missed two items because he had retroactively changed the answer before finishing the exam. Once he saw that the failure had been in his preparation and strategy, his blazing guns had been cooled and holstered. 

I did a trial run of the exam autopsy in a few courses, but quickly made it mandatory for all when I saw the clear benefits. I insisted that exam review appointments could be made only after I had received this post-mortem report. I found this process boosted students’ metacognition—it helped them think about how they think. It also helped with my own time management by easily ferreting out the test items that actually needed to be improved.

Without exception, the students who took the time to perform their own exam autopsy scored higher on subsequent exams. By putting a process in place to help make students more aware of their study habits and understanding of course content, they were able to appropriately prepare themselves for upcoming exams. This helped improve student outcomes, and also effectively eliminated those angry post-exam meetings.

Best practice tips for using Leo with exam autopsies:
  1. Encourage students to create personal events in their calendar to track or document dedicated study time
  2. Instruct students to indicate study habit used during each study session
  3. Advise students to invite study group members to personal events, allowing students to quickly evaluate if they study best in groups or individually