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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Leading Review Sessions

Posted by on Friday, July 26, 2013 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

Dear Professor P.,

I am currently TA-ing in the Sociology Department. The professor has asked me to hold a review session for students the night before the second exam. He covered a lot of content for this exam by lecturing to our 40 students. I’m not sure what students will need to know since I have not seen the exam. How could I possibly cover everything? I only have an hour.


Overwhelmed Otto


Dear Otto-the-Reviewer,

Covering everything isn’t an option—and it should not be your goal. So don’t cover everything.  Whew! That was easy. Next question?

In case it will help, I’ll offer a bit of strategy. I get this question all the time. TAs are often asked to “hold a review session” for students. Many professors think this is a good opportunity to give their graduate students practice interacting with undergraduates, and preparing them for future roles as instructors. This might be true.

It might also be panic-inducing. Think of it: busy and over-extended students are asked to attend a review session on the night before a big test. Their anxiety levels are likely to be high. These students are likely to be laser-focused on finding out exactly what will be on the test—and thus, what they may safely ignore. Because of this intense focus on determining what they can cram, and what they can chuck, students often come to review sessions expecting to get the “inside track” on what the test will ask them to know. Unfortunately, this approach to preparation is not helpful to the kinds of deep learning and sustained engagement that professors want their students to develop throughout the course. It’s a recipe for shallow, surface-level learning.

I feel for you, Otto. No matter how knowledgeable a TA you may be, you are not writing this exam—and thus may not be perceived as an expert by your anxious students. Do you have access to the test? Will you see it before the review session? Why not volunteer to offer comments and suggestions about the test this time, or next time? If you regularly attend class, you should have a good sense of what the professor covered, and what will likely seem most important to your students. What seems most important to you?

When faced with the challenge of reviewing an third of the semester’s material in one hour, most of us would panic. Be bold and strategize!

My first piece of advice is to remember that your students are novices in sociology. They don’t have an MA in the subject, and they certainly don’t know all the nuances of the field. You have this knowledge. What you and the professor have is an expert’s mental organization of sociology. You know the major figures, when they published, and the schools of thought they have pioneered, critiqued, and developed. To your students, lectures can be a jumbled mess because they simply do not have a well-developed view of the “landscape” of your field. This means that you will need to show your students the structure of sociology studies. Your job in this review session is to help students organize their knowledge so that they can develop the enduring understandings taught to them through the class. This is called meta-cognition, and I like to think it’s the “forest” that holds individual trees.

To develop your review session strategy, you might:

  • Review the goals for the course. These should be listed on the syllabus. Which goals does this unit of the course reflect? Try to discern the connections between the course goals and the classroom presentations and learning experiences. The course goals should indicate what students are expected to know and be able to do at the end of the course, and list the major lessons, stories, or traditions of inquiry that students should carry with them for many years.
  • Organize your review session to highlight major understandings. You might ask students to reflect on the reasons why they are learning sociology. You could get them to form groups to talk about and write down the two or three major lessons or enduring understandings from the unit. What are the major lessons that the professor tried to impart in his lectures? What themes were developed since the previous exam?If students identify all the themes correctly, then you can highlight how these themes connect to the rest of the course, and to other learning outcomes. If they focus on pieces of evidence for a particular lesson, you can push them by asking whether this is an important understanding, or evidence in support of that understanding. Helping students distinguish between big ideas and supporting evidence is an important meta-cognitive skill.I would guess that you could identify 2-3 key lessons/enduring understandings from this unit. These lessons can often be buried in the lectures. Helping students identify them is a key step in organizing the course content, reducing confusion, and setting the stage for deeper learning.
  • Use groups to identify supporting evidence for the major understandings. Ask your students to form groups and explore course materials for authors, books, articles and other resources that support the enduring understandings. These groups can then report out, and you can summarize this evidence on the whiteboard, or you could project a screen and type in keywords for each lesson.
  • Step back and evaluate. Now that you have a list of understandings and evidence, what is missing? Are there key pieces of evidence—schools of thought, lines of research, alternative theories and perspectives—that should be included, but are not? If no gaps remain, then students have collaborated in developing a systematic outline of the unit, based on what is most important. If there are major gaps, you could prompt them to look at their notes and class materials in more depth, or suggest places where more study is required.

Given the constraints of any review session, you cannot repeat everything the professor has covered.You can help students develop the meta-cognitive skills to see the overall shape of the course, organizing their knowledge, and identifying gaps. With the gaps in their knowledge identified, students will be able to efficiently and productively organize their time after the review session.

The Center for Teaching can support your teaching in many ways. We have a series of teaching guides that offer suggestions for activities within the classroom. These guides could help you develop your repertoire beyond group work, to include class discussions, cooperative learning, using case studies, visual thinking and many others. As well, you’re welcome to give us a call and schedule a one-on-one consultation if you’d like to talk about review sessions further.

I’d also like to point you to Samford University’s video series on How to Get the Most Out of Studying – they’ve put together some topics that might be of interest to you (how people learn) and to the students (beliefs that undermine efforts and what to do if you blow an exam). So check those out!

Take heart, Otto. You can mobilize your students’ own knowledge. By helping them organize what they already know, you model an effective, research-based strategy for deep learning.


P. Pedagogy


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