Do these learning devices deserve a bigger space in our instructional tool boxes? They’re sort of taken-for-granted aspects of teaching and learning. We know where they belong: at the end or beginning of a session, a topic, a unit/module, a chapter, a set of related readings, before and after an exam, at the beginning or end of the course. And we know who usually creates them—the teacher.
[dropcap]Do[/dropcap] these learning devices deserve a bigger space in our instructional tool boxes? They’re sort of taken-for-granted aspects of teaching and learning. We know where they belong: at the end or beginning of a session, a topic, a unit/module, a chapter, a set of related readings, before and after an exam, at the beginning or end of the course. And we know who usually creates them—the teacher.
We use them because we understand their potential. They help students manage the various content pieces of a course. They show how things are connected, related, and interdependent. They enable students to catch a vision of how the course and its various components hang together, ending up coherent whole. At least that’s the hope.
Typically, students aren’t very good at doing this for themselves. If you ask students to jot down the main points at the end of a session, would the answers be consistent? Probably not. Maybe they weren’t listening, maybe they were done for the day, or maybe the main points weren’t as visible as they needed to be—what’s to blame doesn’t really matter. Not being able to extrapolate the main points does.
In addition to holding the course together, how do content previews, reviews, and summaries promote learning? They do so in a variety of ways. Previews prepare students for what’s to come. They create expectations. Reviews highlight what happened. Most reviews contain summaries. They pull out and emphasize the key ideas—the ones the other materials support, illustrate, or elaborate. Together reviews and summaries establish what’s most important. That’s invaluable for students given how much information is touched on in a single class session, is contained in the five chapters on the exam, and will be covered in the course as a whole. Reviews and previews can also motivate, stimulate curiosity, and provide a sense of accomplishment, all of which contribute to learning.
Previews, reviews, and summaries condense the material and chunk it into more manageable amounts. More than that, the various chunks contain material that’s related—and when students see how the content fits together, that expedites learning. If you think of content as a place you’ve never been, the first time there, it’s hard to find your way around. A preview, review, or summary identifies the landmarks and where things stand in relation to what’s easily visible.
How purposeful are we in planning and preparing these places in which we help students take stock of where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re headed? Do we hurry through them because they take away the time needed for covering the day’s content quota? I’d make the case for not automatically deferring to more content; both are important.
And here’s another important point: previews, reviews, and summaries promote the most learning if students do them. Yes, the teacher can do them better. But there’s some fantasy involved in assuming that students are learning by watching us do all the work. Think about what it takes to develop a good summary. In order to pull out main points and highlight what’s most important, all the content must be reviewed; each point considered in relationship to the rest. That stands a good chance of being an encounter with the content that promotes learning, and those aren’t always easy to get students to do.
Two things will happen if students start doing the previews, reviews, and summaries: They won’t like it and neither will you. They won’t like it because it’s hard work and they’re used to having it done for them. You won’t like it because some of what they come up with is bound to be bad. It’s best to go into this thinking of it as a joint venture—you and the students working together. You can start small and move forward incrementally. “If Tyler, who wasn’t in class yesterday, asks you what happened, what would you tell him? And ‘nothing’ is the wrong answer.” Collect a couple of responses and with the students decide which one is best.
Or how about this exercise: At the beginning of the period, ask students to review their notes and underline what they think is a key idea or the idea they’re most likely to see on the exam. And since it’s a joint venture, you’re still free to provide some of the previews, reviews, and summaries. In fact, you should.
Blazer, A. (2014). Student summaries of class sessions. Teaching Theology and Religion, 17 (4), 344.
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