Reviewing for a Test

There’s not enough time or humility for me to share my teaching fails, but here’s a test review routine that worked well with my students.

I pass out the review questions near the end of class and say:

Chapter 3 Test is scheduled for _____. To review for it, I need you to look through the ten problems on this paper. You’re more than welcome to work on the questions, but you don’t have to, not for me anyway. I need you to just examine them enough to identify two questions on there that you feel confident about, that you have no problem solving them.

Then, I need you to identify two questions that you would like to get help on most. That’s it.

If you have human students as I do, they will ask questions and you’ll have your answers ready.

  • What if I’m confident I can do more than just two?
    • Possible Answer (PA): That’s fantastic! But, nobody cares. I just need you to tell me two.
  • What if I need help with more than two questions?
    • PA: That’s why I said most… two questions that you would like to get help on most.
  • What if I can do the whole test? I mean I don’t need help with anything.
    • PA: Then don’t mark anything down when I ask tomorrow. Or, if you just have one question that you need help with, then identify just that one. Also, you’ll get to make the test key for us.
  • What if I’m not confident with any of the questions?
    • PA: Thank you for that question! I hope you’ll find time this evening to see if you can attempt two of them. Then, please send me an email letting me know if you were successful. Remember, the answers are on the back of the review questions.
  • You said we don’t have to actually do the problems. But can we do them for extra credit?
    • PA: No.
  • How many questions will there be on the test?
    • PA: Ten. Or maybe thirty-five. I don’t know. It’ll depend on what you tell me about these review questions.

The next day, the whiteboard already has two columns drawn, and students know to give two tally marks per side.

If I were to do this again, I’d also send my students home with these two questions in Desmos instead. When you ask for a checklist in Desmos, you get an auto tally of how many students marked that choice in the teacher dashboard.

I focus on the right column and say:

I want to make sure we go through all the questions on the right column. We’ll start with question 4. There are at least four of you here who marked that you are confident with this question, I need one of you to please show us how to do question 4.

And we continue down the list. Notice that I ask students to work on the problems. They learn better from their peers, especially during review time. I get to check for understanding as there are occasions when the “confident” student has done the problem incorrectly. We spend class time on more targeted problems, including admitting which concept needs a serious revisit. I have them do this — looking over the questions — at home rather than in class because I need them to focus, without peer pressure and distractions. I want them to feel free to look back in their notes, in their textbook, search online, ask for help. I want honest feedback.

After we’ve gone over all the questions on the right column, that evening I create the test with four questions already done by choosing two from the left column that had the most tally marks, in this example, questions 1 and 2, verbatim. It’s my selfish way of not having to see a test with a score of 0 which leads me to self-loathing. Then, I pick two questions from the right column that we’d gone over, also verbatim. I can actually hear the sighs of relief when students see the same questions from the review sheet.

This routine works well for regular homework too. Assign the homework without actually have them do the homework: ask for two “easy” questions and two “tough” questions. Let’s not have them work on problems that they already know how to do, instead, let’s spend time together in class to work on the ones they need help with. Promise me you’ll only step in to show how to do the problem when no other student in the class is able to. :) But even then, I’d say, “How about someone starts out this problem, help us with that, just take it as far as you can, and then I’ll take over from there.”

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