Make content review fun and active

Bill Atwood, CEA Associate

Bill Atwood, Featured Blogger

By Bill Atwood, Consultant and Author, Collins Education Associates

When I work with teachers in classrooms and in workshops, I hear frequently hear “I taught this concept or skill, but the kids don’t remember it!” Our students not remembering our lessons can be very frustrating, but as anyone who studied a foreign language in high school knows, if you don’t use it, you lose it.

In fact, research shows quite clearly that to transfer ideas into long-term memory one needs frequent, mixed, spaced practice with immediate feedback. With this in mind, I want to offer several strategies that help students review, practice, and deepen their understanding of key concepts and skills.

Understanding vs. Memorizing

One reason students “forget” big ideas is that all too often the ideas have been memorized—that is, committed to short-term memory and quickly forgotten. We can take some of the pressure off our limited short-term memory if, when learning ideas, we try to “go deeper” by connecting the new information to something already known.

For example, the word perimeter is made up of the prefix peri-, which means “around” (think peri-scope, “look around”; peri-pheral, “around the outside edges”; and peri-odontal, “dentistry concerned with structures surrounding the tooth”). Meter means “measure.” Putting these two terms together (“measure around”) gives students a deeper understanding of the word.

Also, understanding that 1 and 1/3 = (1/3 + 1/3 + 1/3) + 1/3 = 4/3 is better than just memorizing a trick. If we understand something deeply it becomes part of our long-term memory, so memorizing for the short term isn’t as necessary because students will hold onto the skill or concept or will rebuild it when needed. A great math book on this idea is Nix the Tricks by Tina Cardone.

Use Graphics

Even with deeper teaching, students still need review and practice. One effective and quick way to review concepts is to collect critical graphics on PowerPoint or SMART Board slides. In science you might find graphics of the food web, the water cycle, the planets, or some simple machines. Flash the graphic on the screen and ask students to do a Type One writing assignment answering a question such as:

  • What do you notice about this graphic?
  • What science questions might be asked?
  • What vocabulary is related?
  • Describe one possible path of energy through the ecosystem.

Or, if you have already taught this, pepper the students for 5-6 minutes with questions about the image:

  • What is this called?
  • What does is show?
  • What might happen to the population of snakes if the rabbits all die off? Explain.
  • Name two producers.
  • What is the role of the fungi?
  • What’s missing from this web?
  • Where might the energy come from?

See the collections of graphics on my Math and Science Resources web pages for more ideas.

To make this even more effective, have students insert the graphic into a transparency sleeve. (I call them “1 Penny Whiteboards” due to their low cost.) Then ask students to mark up the graphic to show their answers to your questions. This way you can check for understanding by asking students to hold up the sleeve after each question. You can insert anything students need practice on:

  • Short mentor texts like poems or short passages
  • Number lines with fractions
  • Line graphs or line plots
  • Animal cells
  • Maps of the 13 colonies
  • Flawed student writing to practice editing

The key is to create short, fast-paced sessions that mix high- and low-level questions.

See samples of 1 Penny Whiteboards on my ELA Resources web page.

Sorting Cards

Another terrific idea for reviewing key concepts is called sorting cards (see my Science and ELA Resources web pages). These take a few minutes to prepare, as you need to copy the cards onto card stock and then cut them up. I make one set for every two students. Then students work to sort them into columns and rows by looking for deeper connections between terms and concepts. For example, they might review coordinate points, planets, civilizations, key literary terms, or academic vocabulary. When students finish, challenge them to make their own sort for something else you have studied.








































Pepper Cards

A fourth way to actively review old content is using Pepper Cards. These are similar to traditional flash cards but they are slightly more involved. Students and teachers can create them together, and then students practice with a partner. The secret is to have a key graphic, text, or problem on the top and a variety of questions with clear answers below.

Q. What is this diagram called?
A. It is a food web.

Q. What does it show?
A. It shows how the energy flows through the ecosystem.

Q. What are 5 vocabulary words related to this diagram?
A. Consumer, producer, decomposer, predator, prey, population, competition

Q. What relationship exists between the snake and the rabbit? Explain.
A. Predator/prey relationship (predation). The snake (predator) hunts the rabbit (prey).

Q. Name two organisms that are in competition? Explain.
A. The bird and the shrew are in competition for the grasshopper.

Q. Explain a possible effect if grasshoppers disappeared from the ecosystem. Explain. (Use the word population in your answer.)
A. The populations of bird and shrew might decrease as well as populations of hawk and snake. The populations of grass and shrubs might increase.

Q. What is a common mistake with the arrows?
A. People think they are pointing at what each organism “eats.”











Q. What does this show?
A. A physical map of Pakistan

Q. How is it different from a political map?
A. It focuses on land features not divisions of countries, cities, or towns.

Q. How would you describe the physical features of Pakistan? (2 details)
A. There is a mountain range and a river running north to south. There are desert areas on the eastern border and on the southeast side.

Q. How could the mountains be both an advantage and disadvantage to the people of Pakistan?
A. The mountains make it difficult to attack and serve as a natural barrier. They make it difficult to travel easily from east to west—difficult for trade or business.

Q. Describe one advantage Pakistan has over Afghanistan.
A. It has access to a body of water in the south. Afghanistan appears to be landlocked.

Q. What are 2 other map symbols?
A. Compass rose and scale


Salad Bowl

As a final activity, I recommend getting everyone involved. For example, I play vocabulary games a lot with my classes. In this activity, you create a “salad bowl” by putting many of the key terms from your previous units into a giant bowl. Break the class into two or three teams, and then call a student from the first team. The student has 45 seconds to select out terms and try to get their team to name the term based on a description or action.

For example, using the words from the first list below a student might grab a word from the bowl and say, “These are the things you roll before you move around the board in Monopoly.” (Students call out dice and the clue giver puts word in a used-word pile.) “OK, good. Next in math if something has a high probability we say it is _____ to occur.” (Students call out likely.) “Good, yes. Now this is the opposite of that.” (Students call out unlikely.)

After the time expires, the team gets a point for each word it named. The next person from another team comes up and reaches into the bowl and the play continues. If you don’t want to use competition, challenge students to break the record of last year’s class. “They got 45 words after just five rounds!” After you have gone through all the words, put them back in the bowl.

On round two, students get only three words as clues. The clue giver might say things like “Cubes, roll, Monopoly” and  “high probability word.” After a few times through, they will be able to name the word with just a one-word clue: It’s almost psychic!

If this feels too chaotic for you, have students play quietly in pairs. One person is the clue giver, the other person is the guesser. Have them play three rounds until they are psychically connected and can get the word with only one word. Then have them show off for the class.

You’ll find more on vocabulary games in my book, How Did You Get That? Improving Open Responses in Math.

Student Engagement!

With all of these ideas, the key is to generate student engagement. Explain to students why these strategies will help them review. Tell them that the strategies are based on research about how the brain works. Most importantly, try to switch the emphasis from you, the teacher, doing the work to the student doing the work.

To really learn something you have to expend mental energy. Reviewing should be easier than learning the first time, but it’s the students who have to do the work! Set up the activities in a way that empowers them to help each other, quiz each other, and practice together. This way, they will be part of the feedback loop and they will see their progress. Good luck!