Reviewing during a unit

Do you have any suggestions on how to help students review and apply what they learn during a unit? I’ve tried creating games and contests, but the students don’t seem to get much out of them.   —C., Minnesota

Many teachers have special review sessions prior to a test. With my middle and high school students, I found a few issues with this practice:

  • Some students became so dependent on reviews that they would say, “I was absent for the review session. Do I have to take the test now?”
  • The traditional games often focus on factual knowledge or vocabulary, even though the assessments had items that required higher-level thinking.
  • The games and other activities took time to create, find, or adapt, and I was the one doing this. The students had little ownership in the review process.
  • Even though the students enjoyed the games, they didn’t always realize that the purpose was to reinforce their learning or apply the concepts.

So I changed my plans to incorporate periodic review sessions, rather than a marathon one at the end of the unit. Here are some review activities that involved students, seemed to be most helpful for them, and did not take a lot of planning time.

The specialized vocabulary in science is a challenge for students. These activities required students to do more than match a word with a definition:

  • Word Splash: Using a prepared set of words or a list generated in class, teams of students write sentences that include two or more of the words, demonstrating how they can relate and use them. Each team chooses 2-3 of their “best” sentences to share with the whole class to debrief. You can also challenge students to write an entire story using the words or do this as a gallery walk.
  • Word Sort: Give word lists to teams of students to categorize or match. They must provide a rationale of their thinking.

Ask students throughout the unit to create questions as a review, putting a question on one side of an index card with the response on the reverse. I found the students focused more on lower level questions. So I took cubes (I found blank ones in a craft store) and the students wrote (or pasted) six question starters Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How on them. The students, working in teams, rolled the cube and used the starter that came out on top. (If a unit did not focus on Who concepts, students used Why or How instead.) We passed the sets around during other review sessions. If a team came up with a response that was different from the one on the card or if the given response was incomplete or incorrect, they could add it (after checking it out with me and the original writers). We used these during the unit, adding to the stack after each topic, and also at other times when there were a few minutes left over in class or before a major holiday break. The students also enjoyed looking at the responses and trying to figure out the questions.

Another successful strategy was having students create “info cards.” For every unit the students each had a 4X6 index card and could write down whatever information they wanted from their notes or other references. They were allowed to refer to the cards during the test (there were very few recall items on the test). I collected the cards with the test papers so that students could not “share” their cards.

The students soon realized that they had to actually review their notes and other resources to create the card. They had to select important information, summarize, prioritize, and decide what they did or did not know–important, higher-level skills. One student remarked that making the cards was the most time he ever spent reviewing (and he had good test results to show for it).

I also observed that by having some information available during the test, the students’ responses to open-ended questions were much improved. Looking at the cards also gave me some feedback on what the students considered important. Afterwards, I asked the students to incorporate the cards into their notebooks for future reference.

These activities also served as a type of formative assessment. As students worked on them, I could circulate around the room and observe their work, looking for misconceptions, misunderstandings, or incomplete understandings.



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1 Response to Reviewing during a unit

  1. John Bennett says:

    Two comments: First, make the review materials prep and the review in class student controlled as much as possible – as you suggest in the post. I prefer groups of three but what ever works for you. I don’t like flash cards or work sheets as they are really recall only. I love the cube idea and will likely use that myself.
    My second comment is to use as much learning level-specific real world activities as possible. They will learn the material to be able to do the work and test themselves doing the work. You can get ideas at as well as at the Buck Institute of Education (BIE) and Edutopia webpages.
    Hope this helps.

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