I teach introductory biology classes; the students in these classes are typically new to the discipline at the college level and often find the amount and level of material challenging to absorb and retain. However, many students are nervous about asking or answering the questions I ask. Typically it's only a few of the well-prepared students who respond to the comprehension questions I pose. The less-prepared students keep their heads down. But students need to interact in class for me to determine the level at which they are understanding the material or struggling with it. Cold-calling feels threatening to many students and makes them even less likely to engage. I use an in-class review strategy to overcome this situation.
Before class starts I write questions on the board from material covered in the previous class period. While I'm setting up the computer and taking attendance, students have time to prepare their answers. I encourage them to work in pairs. Peer mentorship is helpful in this case. Working with partners gives students more confidence in their answers. This is time students would otherwise spend checking their phones or chatting with friends. Instead they're consulting their notes and discussing course content with a neighbor.
My questions take diverse forms. Some ask for definitions, others for lists of criteria, or examples that illustrate a concept. Sometimes I create tables to facilitate compare and contrast questions. It's easy to summarize a large amount of material on a table. I may provide diagrams that need labels or problems to solve. My questions help students learn what topics are most important, and the review gives me an opportunity to ask both simple recall as well as application questions. When covering new material that draws on content presented earlier in the semester, I use the review to refresh students' memories and get us to the same take-off point. Occasionally I will include a review question verbatim on the test. This reinforces the importance and applicability of the review questions, and it allows me to gauge how well students have prepared for the exam.
There are three ways I call on students to answer the questions. Sometimes I start with a student in one corner and proceed student by student having them answer each successive question. With this strategy, they know when they'll be called on and it allows a bit more time for preparation. Occasionally, I cold-call on students. To avoid having individuals feel targeted, I blindly pick a card with the student's name from a shuffled deck. After the student answers the question, I let them choose the next card. This distances me from the selection, and the students enjoy being involved in the process. This strategy ensures there's no bias involved. Every student has an equal chance of being chosen. The third way I call on students incentivizes volunteering. I let the students choose the question they'll answer. Those who volunteer first have the greatest choice; they can pick the question they are most confident in answering. This approach also gives the activity a game-like feel akin to Jeopardy
. Where I've created lists to complete, each student fills in one item. For compare and contrast tables, each student fills in one box. With diagrams each student identifies one structure. For any question I may ask the student for follow-up information.
From my perspective, the in-class reviews work very well. The questions are well-defined, and the timing allows students to prepare answers, thereby fostering confidence in their ability to answer correctly. It's an approach that gives students some sense of control. Student feedback verifies that from their perspective the reviews are helpful. For example:
- “The teacher asks questions at the beginning of class. At first this was terrifying to me because I am not good at science but I feel as though this time teaches me a lot.”
- “I love the way (the instructor) will ‘recap' the previous lecture at the beginning of each class. This not only builds on the foundation of what was learned but also strengthens it.”
- “I really like how she makes sure that everyone knows the material before moving on.”
- “I enjoyed how we had review questions from the previous class at the beginning of the class. I found that to be helpful in my understanding of the lessons.”
I use the technique in biology classes, but I can see it working in a wide range of disciplines. If only a few students typically speak up in class, these approaches are non-threatening ways to call on students. The in-class opportunity to prepare answers encourages student participation. My reviews signal the beginning of class. They remind the students of what we've already covered, where we ended, and that that helps sets a foundation for new material. Although I do this at the beginning of class time, the activity could be used in the middle of a class to reinforce content and check comprehension. When students actively use information they are in the process of learning, they are more likely to remember it and to understand its complexities.
Phyllis M. Higley, College of Saint Mary, NE, can be reached at phigley@CSM.edu