Teaching tip: Use a discussion thread to decide what to cover in a review session

Last week, I gave one teaching tip I learned from Trisha Wittkopp: start lectures with a short video. Today, I’m giving another one I learned from Trisha: use a discussion thread to decide what to cover in a review session.

When I first taught Intro Bio at Michigan, one of the things that made me nervous was the in class review sessions that occurred on the day of the exam. (Our exams are in the evening, and we don’t cover new material in the regular class session on the day of an exam.) I had no idea of how to structure the review sessions, so I asked the person I taught with that semester. He said he just showed up and answered questions. So, I did the same. Sometimes this led to covering useful material, but sometimes it meant that the questions were about some obscure point from the reading* or about something that few in the class wanted covered. I remember one student who really wanted to discuss amensalism, which was something that the book had mentioned but that we didn’t discuss in class and that I didn’t think was important to cover/know.**

(In case you don’t follow those footnotes: yes, this reflects other problems with how the course was set up that semester, which we’ve worked to change.)

When I next taught Intro Bio, I taught with Trisha Wittkopp, who taught the first half of the semester. Her approach is to set up a discussion thread on our course webpage (now on Canvas). Students can respond by suggesting a topic (e.g., “How nitrogen moves through food webs”) or a particular question from the practice exam. We ask students to look at the existing topics before they post a new one, and tell them to upvote a question/topic if it’s the same as the one they had.

This system works really well. The biggest benefit is that it means I can start by focusing on the topics that the most students are confused about, rather than the topics that the least timid students ask about. It also gives me a sense of how much confusion there is about a particular topic. For example, this year a student asked

Can we go over the difference between assimilation efficiency, consumption efficiency, production efficiency, and transmission efficiency?

It was the most upvoted question, so I wrote a series of clicker questions for the review session (and turned it into an optional homework that I posted on the website for students who didn’t attend/view the review session).

I don’t restrict myself to the topics that are posted; sometimes I add in some topics that I’ve realized students need more practice with based on office hours, but those tend to overlap pretty strongly with what students post about on the discussion thread.

I think this approach works well (though admittedly this is just based on my impressions — I have no way of assessing the effectiveness of the different formats).

I was reminded of how much I like this approach last semester when a colleague asked me for advice on how to run a review session. That question made me think of the contrast between the way I originally ran them vs. how I run them now. The new approach is simple to implement and much more effective! And it seemed to help that colleague to share Trisha’s tip with them, so I figured I’d share it more broadly here.

I’d love to hear in the comments from others about how they structure review sessions (especially in very large classes!)


*Perhaps another teaching tip topic could be how we’ve changed the way we assign readings. When I first taught Intro Bio, the readings were often an entire, very dense chapter. Over the course of the semester, it became clear to me that students were not actually well-served by doing the reading, since so much of it was irrelevant to what we discussed in class. We now give much more focused readings and, in cases where the material is too spread out across the text (or simply not there), I write a short summary myself. We also write a pre-reading guide that gives students more information about what to focus on in the assigned readings.

**Another potential future topic would be our use of learning objectives to make it much clearer to students what they should focus on when they study. We did not do a good job of signaling what students needed to know in that first semester when I taught, but I think we do a pretty good job of it now.

3 thoughts on “Teaching tip: Use a discussion thread to decide what to cover in a review session

  1. I sometimes have students do “minute papers” at the end of the last class before a review session–write down the topic you’re struggling with most (called “minute papers” because they only take a minute to write). Then I open the review session by going over the most often-named topics. But that requires me to skim a whole bunch of minute papers, rather than just looking at a few discussion threads to see which questions were upvoted.

    I suppose you could also run an online poll?

    I do hold an end of term review session, but they’re not very useful in my experience. Most students who show up don’t come prepared with questions, they just come hoping somebody else asks a question. So they all end up just awkwardly staring at each other, or asking useless questions like “how many questions will be on the exam?” Much more useful has been holding what I call practice sessions, which I scatter throughout the term. I give students mock exam questions to work through in pairs.

  2. I like to ask my students “If you were me, what topics would you put on the exam?” It’s equivalent to “what do you think are the most important topics?” but its worded in a way that elicits more responses.

    I then ask the students specific questions related to these topics, and about general difficulties, as they come up. This allows me to steer the conversation away from more minor topics.

    I’ve never preempted such sessions with an online discussion thread, but I like the idea.

    An aside: I’ve always found it strange that universities have special time slots for exams [outside of the final]. Isn’t it more efficient to hold these during class time, when students, in theory, know they are supposed to be free for (I know this shortens the possible exam length, but I don’t like the idea of invading students evening plans with exams). It doesn’t seem great for students with families. The school I TAed for did the special time slots for exams (in big intro classes) too and I found it strange coming from an undergrad location that didn’t do that.

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