Review Sheets vs. Review

“Can we have a review sheet?” To me this is code for “Tell us what is on the test”.  It takes the engagement out of the process. Students just want a list of what to review. They don’t want to have to think about what they’ve learned, what the standards are, and thereby what the key understanding are.

So, I’ve developed a technique for putting together a review sheet:  the students do it. For pupils new to the process, we take a class period and begin going through the text and class notes together. I help them identify the key standards and understandings focused on in the course. We discuss how different activities helped them gain necessary understanding and they begin making their own list of what to study. Often they make connections they hadn’t yet made. Then, their homework is to finish the review sheet. For students more advanced in the process, the assignment simply comes as a homework assignment leading up to the review day.

Recently as I outlined the assignment, students responded immediately with, “Can we have one of those whiteboard activities for review?” For me that involved setting up a set of review questions in a PowerPoint that addresses each standard and stimulates review conversation.  Over the next couple of days a set of questions is refined that will meet my criteria. Multiple-choice questions often have several “correct” answers that reveal deeper levels of thinking when chosen. Short answer clarifies thinking processes. Prompts to draw or sketch provide additional methods of assessing necessary content.

On our review day students enter the classroom with an air of excitement. They retrieve their “whiteboards” and sit in anticipation of the review to come. Then, they tackle the question set with those markers and whiteboards, holding up their answers for me to see after each prompt.  Great dialogue ensues and students furiously add notes to their review sheets. It is also clear to me who has taken my review sheet assignment seriously. They are able to think through all of the questions and generate thought provoking analysis that leads to solidified and deeper understandings. Most importantly, I see where the class is at in their mastery of the standards and some necessary refining can still take place!

It’s a process so much more satisfying and effective than cranking out some review sheet. We’ll see how they do on their exams!

Facilitate learning through mind mapping

Their quest is outlined. Examples are given. The purpose is revealed. They are presented with the task.

“But that’s a lot!”

What are they to do? Create a mind map of the past two years of study in IB Biology. There are 6 core topics for Standard Level and 11 core topics for Higher Level plus two options for each group. Nearly every topic links to the others. On their sheet of paper the student teams are to record all the assessment statements with words, diagrams, figures, symbols, and pictures and then make as many connections between them as possible, indicating on joining lines what the relationships are.

At first they take to the task with the end goal in mind. They just “want to get the mind map done” but then I reiterate the value of review and making connections in preparation for their IB exams and I explain that they will not be assessed on the mind map itself. They will take an exam and be able to refer to their (and only their) mind map when taking the exam.


Seriousness and intensity settle on the group. They bend over their texts, notes, and mind maps with greater purpose. Discussions over potential connections ensue. Before they know it, the class is over. As they roll up their maps they make plans as to how they will proceed during the next session.

The value of this “hands-on” collaborative activity is multi-faceted. The purposes of mind mapping include but are not limited to (1):

  1. Enhancing memory (everyone wants this, right?)
  2. Enhancing learning (so, if it was missed it the first time, maybe they’ll get it this time!)
  3. Helping in planning and organizing (students will know what they need to study for the IB exam)
  4. Improving writing skills (which will help students better communicate on the IB Exams)
  5. Encouraging critical thinking and problem solving skills (which will help students on the IB Exams)

Do not underestimate the power of mind mapping! It is worth class time to allow students to work towards building the connections within their studies. 

(1) Mind Mapping in Education. (2012, January 1). Retrieved February 24, 2015, from

Another resource, created by the ThinkBuzan company and linked here, references and outlines the scientific evidence for the value of mind mapping.

How much choice should students have in their own learning?

“Don’t you think you should let us make the decision?”

“He’s right”, I think.  But, I’m hesitant.

Normally, I send my second year IB students into the spring break with a regimented plan of review.  This year, however, I was stymied by the fact that their needs were so diverse and I couldn’t hone in on a “one size fits all” method.  From their mock exams I knew that, at a minimum, they all needed to review photosynthesis, osmoregulation, and all of genetics.

Now, it’s somewhat common to include students in deciding the rules of a classroom to enhance classroom management or to include students in building rubrics for a specific assignment to increase engagement in learning as well as quality of product.  However, I’m not so sure about preparation for IB exams.

Within a 10-second period a mental battle rages within:  The control freak inside of me wants to give them a quiz, after the break, covering their areas of weakness so that I can ensure that they will study what they need to study.  However, my logical self agrees with my students’ perspective that they are motivated enough to learn the topics they need to learn.  Then, the IB teacher inside of me reminds me of my responsibility to give them every opportunity to succeed.  The individual within me argues back that the students do know what to do and I’ve already equipped them properly.

10 of the graduating seniors are in my IB Bio class, 7 of them intent on passing the IB Biology exam.

I listen to their individual study plans that include practice papers, reviewing weaknesses, and studying as they determined best suited for themselves.  They are convincing.

So, in the end, I decide to let them self-regulate.  After all, in a few months time they will all be at college.   They should be able to handle this on their own, right?

Of course, I’ll be doing some formative assessment upon their return from the break.  After all, I need to collect data on this little experiment, right?  And, the reality is that we still have time to go into hyper-drive mode in the event that the experiment doesn’t work.