Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

An Improved Design for In-Class Review

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

An Improved Design for In-Class Review

Article excerpt

A substantial amount of class time is spent reviewing material from previous courses or the previous class meeting. It is common for instructors to give review lectures that can occupy some hours at the beginning of a term and/or 5-10 minutes of review at the start of each individual class. The intention in these review sessions is generally to focus students' attention, clarify their understanding of "previously learned" concepts, and prime them to connect this prior knowledge to the new topics or problems that will follow.

At the University of British Columbia, we had trained observers (Wieman, Perkins, & Gilbert, 2010) watching the attention of students during classes. They found that students' attention largely switched away from the course material during this lecture review. Not only did they get little from the review, but they also required additional time to reengage when new material was introduced.

Although we were surprised to discover that this time-honored practice was not very effective, once confronted with the data, it was easy to understand why. There is a well-established result from cognitive psychology that familiarity with a topic makes people erroneously believe they understand/have learned it (Willingham, 2003). A less-studied result, but one that can be confirmed at many faculty meetings, is that a person will quickly become bored and disengaged if lectured on something they believe they already know. The combination of these two effects means that few students who have previously heard about the topic being reviewed will pay attention and benefit. Those students who have not heard about the topic are very unlikely to learn much from such a brief review, and thus it will also be of little value to them.

Guided by the cognitive psychology literature on the benefits of testing for retention, self-evaluation, and learning (Bjork, 1994; Karpicke & Roediger, 2008; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006), we tried an alternative strategy. We replaced all review lecturing with problems that covered the review topics. The students solved these problems in class and responded using clickers. Working on the problems activates thinking about the relevant material and forces students to test their understanding. If they get a question wrong, and often even if they don't, they are then primed to think more deeply about the follow-up discussion and ask questions to understand better. Also, if there are test questions that everyone in the class answers correctly, that is immediately obvious and the instructor can move on, leaving more time for topics where many have difficulty.

When we and others tried this approach, it seemed to work better--the students were more engaged and the instructor was better informed. However, we wondered about alternatives that might be even more effective, taking advantage of the targeted and timely feedback that can be provided to a student by a classmate during collaborative learning. This sort of feedback is difficult or impossible for an instructor to do in a large course but seemed particularly well suited to re view, where a student might only need a brief reminder of some terminology or result they had forgotten to solidify their understanding. On a small scale, where one is spending a few minutes reviewing a previous class, peer instruction (Crouch & Mazur, 2001) seemed like a reasonable solution. In that method, students click in answers and then, if a significant fraction have the question wrong, students discuss with their neighbors and revote.

In considering the more substantial review needed at the start of a course that relies on material covered in previous courses, we decided to try a more extensive option, specifically a "two-stage review." This uses the format of a two-stage exam (Cortright, Collins, Rodenbaugh, & DiCarlo, 2003), in which students answer a series of review problems individually, turn in their answers, and then redo the same problems in a group of three to five students. …

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