This is the time of year when we face the challenge of preparing our students for upcoming assessments and exams. Students have been exposed to a wealth of content, concepts, and skills over the past weeks and months. We know that students often forget much of what they’ve heard and taken in over time. Now we need to understand how well they’ve absorbed, stored, and can recall and apply what they’ve learned. Our challenge is to bring what students have learned to a conscious level and shore up what they still need to learn. Test preparation strategies that refresh learning and extend recall can help students do this.
However, our goal shouldn’t simply be just to have our students do well on an exam. While having our students do well is part of their and our success equation, we really want them to be able to recall, apply, and connect what they’ve learned beyond the exam. Test preparation may be the immediate activity, but it’s a great opportunity to help students to refresh, reinforce, and ramp up what they’ve learned. Our real goal is to have students be able to retrieve what they’ve learned and access it long after they’ve finished the exam and left our class.
Giving students practice questions that mimic the format they’ll encounter on the exam and reviewing strategies for developing and choosing question responses can assist students to accurately demonstrate what they know. However, these activities do little to reinvigorate what students have learned or uncover gaps and “soft spots” in their learning. Interestingly, some of the strategies we used during initial instruction to help students remember can also be useful in refreshing and reinforcing past learning. Here are four strategies that can help our students get ready for major exams while also extending their learning recall.
Schedule brief, frequent, and focused refreshment sessions. Start early and allow plenty of time. For example, we might take the first or last few minutes of daily class routines for quick review and assessment of what students know and what may need to be reinforced. Students will be better able to re-activate prior learning if they engage in small doses of review over time, rather than large dose cramming in the final days before the assessment. These sessions should include concepts and skills with which students did well during initial instruction and areas of struggle. Just because students scored well on previous assessments doesn’t mean they can recall and apply previous learning now. In areas where students struggled during initial learning, we need to pay particular attention to aspects and elements that challenged them. We can also challenge ourselves to find new approaches that might sidestep learning traps and trip-ups and create more successful learning paths for students.
Have students engage in retrieval practice. This relatively simple research-based strategy can provide a significant advantage to students’ preparation. We start by giving students a specific topic, process, or skill on which to focus. Students then do a “mind dump” by recounting, orally or in writing, everything they can recall from prior learning related to the recall target. Students can quickly refresh their memories while identifying areas that may need reinforcement. Interestingly, this approach has been shown to be more efficient and effective than reteaching. Of course, we can encourage students to repeat this process on their own as they prepare for exams individually or in small groups. A key benefit associated with this activity is its ability to extend recall well beyond the completion of an exam.
Coach students to engage in self-quizzing. We might encourage students to generate questions they anticipate will be on the exam. We might “prime” this activity by reminding students of the major concepts and skills they’ve studied and likely will be included in the assessment. By developing questions, students will focus on key content they need to know. Their answers to the questions they generate can build confidence and uncover areas needing more focus and study. A twist to this activity is to have students exchange questions and have classmates develop responses for review by the question creator. The exchange likely will broaden the thinking and preparation in which students engage, as different students predictably will focus on different aspects of the content.
Have students build “mind maps” to demonstrate elements, relationships, and key concept hierarchies. Mind maps can be particularly helpful to students who prefer to organize their thinking and recall with visual representations. Seeing the map in their minds can be a great assistance to them as they respond to exam questions, and “mind maps” retain easily long after the exam is complete. If students build “mind maps” during initial learning, now is a good time to have students retrieve them, review them, and explain their meaning to a classmate. The process of explaining will further solidify recall and may surface areas of confusion or memory loss that’ll need to be addressed.
Obviously, we want our students to do well on key unit and end-of-year assessments. However, we also know students often focus their attention on upcoming exams and quickly forget content once the assessment is complete. These strategies can help students learn more effectively now, as well as build long-term memory they can access in the future.