Planning Them and Getting Started
In addition to regularly scheduled discussion sections and labs, many TFs will run review sessions for their students, particularly just before exams. Students come to these sessions ravenous. Run a good review session and students who failed to take advantage of your wisdom all semester will hang on your every word. They’ll beg you to stay beyond the allotted time. They’ll scream encore!each time you try to walk out of the room. You’ve got it, and they want it. Review sessions matter and they’re not easy to run, so here’s some advice.
Avoid Chaos, Have a Plan
TFs have a tendency to let students plan this one: “I’ll just show up and answer their questions.” This is tricky for a couple of reasons. First, if every student shows, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to answer all his or her questions unless you plan to stay for three days. Second, it helps to have made decisions about what you’ll answer and what you’ll not. If you’ve seen the final (or at the very least some version of the final), you can plan to solve questions that approach the major themes or content without giving away any secrets. If you haven’t seen the final, you should still identify five or six problems that together do a good job of addressing the items or themes you think students will need to know.
Start the review session by laying out an agenda, then stick to it. Here are a couple of strategies. Start by polling the audience as to what question or problem students would like you to do. Write each response on the board, putting similar requests together (or whatever organizational system works best). Then prioritize your approach starting with the most common request. Eliminate any requests that you feel comfortable eliminating, and there’s your session. “D” is for “done!”
Another idea is to start by telling students which problems or issues you plan to cover, ask what additional problems they might want, add as many as possible, and then begin. The overall point here is simple: set the agenda from the beginning, tell them what you’ll do, and then do it. Everybody’s happy.
Reviewing: Good, Better, Best
(Good) You Do It
You’ve got your agenda so it’s time to start going over the material. A standard approach is to do the problems or talk through the issues yourself while students listen and write. Should you choose this approach, make sure you talk to students as you use the board, highlighting key points and important choices. Take the opportunity to articulate your rationale and to describe important links to other problems or issues in the course. While orderly, this approach can be time consuming, especially if students interrupt you (rest assured, they will) with questions.
(Better) Do It Together
This strategy is like the one above except that it’s more interactive. As you cover the material, ask the students questions about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Toss in a “what if?” question to get students thinking about different versions of the same question. This way you can actually address issues in two or three types of problems while actually completing only one. With this approach you are more likely to help students discover what they do and do not understand. And because it requires more of them, they’ll learn more than they would just listening or copying.
(Best) They Do It. You Help.
If you’re feeling plucky (ask yourself: do you feel plucky, punk?), you can really shine in review sessions by using pairs or small (very small) groups. Once you’ve set the agenda, divide the class into pairs or groups of three. Ask each unit to begin working on the first problem as you roam from group to group. Listen in. If students are making progress, move on to the next. If a group is stuck, give them enough information to get them unstuck and move on. Continue this way until everyone has the problem solved.
If a group finishes quickly, give them the next problem or make the current problem harder by changing a variable or adding a “what if?” If you see that nearly everyone is forgetting a certain principle or is making the same mistake, stop the action, review that point, and put them back to work. The advantages of this strategy are that students get real practice, and you get to address real problems in their understanding.
Teaching Fellows often bring review sheets and learning aids to review sessions. Students are very grateful for these, so it’s a good idea. But here’s a better idea. Develop those materials before the review session — maybe at the start of the semester —and distribute them to your students whenever appropriate after that. Students can use them to prepare for section, attendance will rise, learning will happen, and you may not have to wait for a review session for that standing ovation!