Squeezing an elephant in a tube of toothpaste

Okay, so the title gotcha! What I’m talking about is: preparing for midterms and finals. My school asks us to spend 3 days of class time to review with our kids. (Of course, because we had a snowday today, that number goes down to 2 days!)

(found here)

I constantly am torn between various models of studying. The three standard ones are:

A. Prepare a giant packet and have kids do it in class (requiring — or recommending — certain pages be done on certain nights). The packet covers the entire course.

B. Prepare review games.

C. Let kids study on their own, focusing on what they need to work on. They have all their assessments (and reassessments), their skill lists, handouts, and home enjoyments (our corny word for homework). Let them sift through their material, organize it in a way that makes sense to them, and let the teacher know what they’d like to cover. The teacher prepares some (optional) mini-lectures, but pretty much lets students use the class time on their own.

I’ve tried A and B, but I’ve found them lacking. The big issue is that each kid has different areas they need to target with their studying. Games —  though fun! — end up being less about learning and more about letting students know they don’t know something. They don’t really give students the time to remediate. Also, a game can only cover so much material.

The packet thing feels a bit coddling to me. I want students to learn to study without everything being so spoon fed. But a small voice always seems to be squeaking: am I railing against that because I don’t want to take the time to write a giant packet? And am I afraid that the students, even though I tell them otherwise, will feel like doing the packet is enough?

So I’ve tended to do C. I let my kids spend the class time any way they want. I give them a list of topics (or because I’m doing SBG in calculus, I give them a list of skills) and ask them to classify them as “know” “kinda know” and “don’t know”

I then have them make a concrete plan of action, to show them that reviewing everything is manageable. Finally, I have them pick 3-5 they most want me to give a “mini lesson” on. I compile the data, figure out the most requested topics, and prepare short lessons on each topic. During class, my kids can listen to the mini lectures they are interested in, or work alone or with a partner on whatever math skill they want to work on.

The point is: I want kids to spend their time on what they feel they need to work on.

Other things I do/have done:

1. Have students each write their own study guide for a topic, complete with problems and solutions. These get put online electronically for others to use.
2. Have students make a general outline of the course, so they can see what we’ve done in a big picture flow-chart-type-thing.

I guess what I’m wondering from you is: What do you do to review for midterms and finals, and why? And does it work? I’m just not totally happy with anything I’ve done. I want the most kids to get the most out of a short amount of time. I feel I’m not there yet.



  1. > 1. Have students each write their own study guide for a topic, complete with problems and solutions. These get put online electronically for others to use.

    I tried this last semester — having students write sample problems and solutions for various topics — and it was one of the purest, most literal examples of Sturgeon’s Law that I have ever seen. I probably won’t try that again unless somebody can show me a better way to approach it.

    Something else I usually do is let students bring a single page of notes to exams, carefully explaining to them that the value of the notes is not in having them during the exam, but the cognitive act of organizing the information, that many people find they never refer to the notes during the exam, not because the notes were useless but because by creating the notes, they remembered it.

    This seems to work moderately well, but for some topics better than other. I’m not sure whether this would work better or worse in your SBG setting, whether the organization of information that you’ve already given them would enhance or detract.

    I should also admit that I was forced to abandon this one-page-of-notes strategy in a different course I was co-teaching last semester, because my co-teacher thought that his students would think it was a haze.

  2. Using SBG, I am able to narrow down the topics needed for heavy review. I choose the game strategy, because the type of kids I teach will not go home and study a packet and/or do it on their own. Low-level 9th grade students.

    Whatever, they do they have to turn in so I can try and check progress.
    Jeopardy using CPS-response clickers is great because I keep a table of the type of questions they miss.

    Treasure Hunts Dan Meyer Style and clock review because it allows me to see about half the students per period.

  3. My calculus students are a different breed. They generally know how to study and I typically use method C with them. That exam is a learning tool to get them closer to being ready for the May AP exam.

    For my lower achieving students, I want them to know how to look an answer / method up. This kind of kid almost always tanks exams. In the past I’ve almost always have to scale the exam. It used to irritated me that the bozo that did nothing studying got the same scale as the kid that worked his/her buns off. Now what I’ve been doing is to preparing a set of notes and corresponding exercises from each unit/module we cover. The notes are worth 2 points and the practice exercises are worth 3 points. I add these points to the grade of the exam. I typically have 4 or 5 packets so I student could get 20 to 25 points added to their exam grade. Do all the work, you’ll get a nice grade on the exam, do nothing, you’ll probably fail it.

    The beauty of it is when a kid of this caliber is getting frustrated about a questions, I have then flip the review sheet to the exercise just like it and hint around so they make the connection and can generalize the method to the exam question. If the bozo did not complete that part of the review, oh well, sucks to be you (not aloud of course, that just pisses them off)

  4. I give kids a small bit of extra credit if they do extra review problems from the textbook and check answers as they go. That’s the comprehensive review part the kids need to do on their own, mostly outside of class. On my part, I make up additional problems of the complexity level they might see on the test, and give them a short sheet of those problems per review day in class. Their time in class is thus spent going over those targeted practices and doing individual review based on the additional (“extra credit”) textbook problems I had assigned. For real review, I never use games; too little individual participation/involvement at a time!

  5. I combine A and C. Our courses typically have 20-25 outcomes (I think you guys call these standards). I’ll break the course into three logical sections, and prepare a package for each one. In the package, I’ll state an ouctome, and then provide an example question or two on that outcome. After going over 6 or 7 outcomes, I then provide a set of test-style practice questions. The students can then see which outcomes they know and which they need to review more on their own. An example of one of my review packages can be found here:


  6. After years of me being the review agent at the front of the class, I changed to using a learning center approach.

    I set up review stations around the room that address what skills/topics students need to be able to demonstrate their proficiency in on assessment day. Students, usually two working as partners, move from station to station doing the tasks.

    Teacher help can be asked for when needed, but because students work with a partner, they less often need my help on review day. Answer sheets are available for students to check their work and we have had great success with using this strategy because at least 6 of us in our dept use this general strategy for review days.

    In keeping with your SBG classrooms, I can tell you that the strength of using this review method is that students can tell you what they “can do” and what they still need to work on.

    Also, we use some theme based reviews, like this linear review lab which I’ve uploaded onto scribd at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/46807219/L-I-N-E-a-R-Lab-All-Stations-Minis

    This page provides an overview of the stations, but I also posted each station as a separate scribd doc.

    As I’m sure you know, scribd cannot be accessed at many schools because it is a social sharing network, so you may have to access it from home.

  7. Perfect timing. I’m trying SBG for the first time this year and was thinking it would structure review time perfectly. Being that I only read your post between periods at school, I only had time for students to take a look at their skill lists ( 1-40 so far) and put the following: smiley face for “know”, no expression face for “kinda know” and sad face for “don’t know”. I then passed out a little slip of paper for them to list their top 5 “don’t knows”. I realize I could have just looked through their skill list to accomplish this, but I thought having them do it is the whole point.

  8. My structure was a lot like what you describe in C. I included one sample problem with each standard so that students could remind themselves what it was (and test themselves) in case they forgot the fancy wording. I also gave them references to which pages of their notes or which HW assignments they could refer to for each topic (after a while, I let them do this by themselves) to show that everything on the test was, in fact, in their notes.

    We often spent half the review time re-working homework/classwork problems or working on the giant packet (when I was organized enough to put one together– it was also organized by standard), then the other half playing one of the few games I approved (which were essentially broken-up worksheets– nothing like Jeopardy). Before the EOC, I added short “litmus tests” (<5 questions) on major topics to help students self-assess, and then taught mini-lectures that they could either pay attention to or ignore (if they were working on independent review).

  9. What I do depends on the class and the difficulty level. If the students are on top of things going into review then we play a review game: there’s often a strong correlation between the class’s homework completion percentage and their readiness, so I let them know that if half the class isn’t doing the homework regularly, there’s just no way we can afford to play a review game when we could get through twice as much review with a worksheet. The green light for playing a review game tends to be around 90% homework completion for an honors class and 75% for a regular or basic class. (I try to be realistic with my expectations.)

    If the class has been doing a poor job of doing homework consistently, or the concepts on the test are particularly difficult, then I do a version of C. I regularly track the homework problems students had the most difficulty with. So, a la Fred Jones, I create visual instruction plans (VIP’s) for these concepts with the related homework problems listed. Two days before the test, I hand these out and tell them to review the VIP’s and to practice the problems for any concepts they’re still shaky on. Then the next day, I answer whatever questions they have, re-teach concepts by request, do additional problems if they need them, etc.

    The VIP’s are a lot of work–essentially creating detailed step by step notes for them–but I feel a lot better about my efforts, and the students’ test performance, than I do with a giant review packet that doesn’t get done or that students’ copy off of each other to finish because I’ve made it worth double homework points.

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