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!)