It's that time of year.  Everyone is gearing up for the onslaught of final exams.  I remember how, as a new teacher, I disliked the experience of spending a week of review marching the whole class through the entire scope of what they had learned that semester.  Even to my inexperienced eyes, it was clear that some of the students were bored and resentful, while others were lost and not getting the help they needed.

There is a better way.  We must first simply acknowledge that individual students have different needs when reviewing for an exam.  The task becomes one of helping each student design the review process for herself.  In other words, reviewing for an exam needs to become a differentiated learning experience.

The first step is for each student to isolate what she needs to work on to prepare for the exam.  This can be accomplished by using an ungraded pre-test that covers all the material that will be tested on the exam.  The results of the pre-test should show the teacher and each student what specific work she needs to do to review.

Every student should then be given time to do that work, transforming the review process from a lock-step activity to an individualized experience. There is also an important role for conversational learning to take place, by having students who have mastered one aspect of the curriculum teach it and answer the questions asked by students who haven't yet mastered it.

This approach frees the teacher up from forcing the class to do work that is only useful for a subset of students.  It makes each student responsible for reviewing what she still needs to master.  The teacher stops driving the train and nagging students to work.  Instead, she becomes an ally and a facilitator of learning, always a better position to be in.

Teachers:  For a detailed description of how to implement this strategy, read sections 8.12 through 8.14 of “Making Tests Meaningful”, which is found in A Teacher’s Handbook.