Exam Review Exercise

Students enjoying a classThis game can be played in tutorials, lectures, or study groups outside class, and it helps to produce the lateral thinking, critical negotiations, and breadth of thought required to perform well on essay- or short-answer based exams. The game begins the week after it is introduced, ideally, in order to give students a chance to generate their lists of key terms by going back over lecture notes and course texts. You can split up these tasks, assigning different parts of the term to different groups of students, or you can simply ask everyone to bring a list of 5 key terms from each week or reading. Key terms can be concepts, classes of concept or object, author names, critical methods or schools, aspects of theories, and characters or themes from stories. You can adapt the game as needed (after years of workshops for arts, social sciences, sciences, and professions, I have yet to find someone who hasn’t thought of a new way to use it).

The set-up

At least three weeks before the exam, students are asked to brainstorm about what examinations actually examine. In general they come up with lots of responses, many of which are far more sophisticated than “whether we’ve read the books or not” – and if there are some which are important to you which get missed, feel free to add stuff to the list.

Then students must write down a list of all the important concepts, keywords, texts, characters (if it’s a fiction course), themes etc. from the course. This happens at home or in groups, if you’re willing to devote class time to it. They usually use their lecture notes and reading notes for this part, so remind them to bring these notes if you’re doing it in class.

Two weeks before the exam, they bring their master lists to class, but it is cut up so that each teeny piece of paper has one keyword on it. All the pieces of paper get put into a hat or jug. Don’t forget the container. Then the fun begins.

The game

Students are divided up into groups of 3-5; each group draws three pieces of paper from the container and must make connections between the three words within 3-5 minutes (you set the time). Some of the connections are quite far-fetched, but that’s totally okay. One designated recorder from the group writes down the words and point form notes about the connections the group comes up with. After the 3-5 minute time limit, the words go back in the container and the group draws three more words. If one is the same as they drew before, that’s okay. If two are the same, that might be okay. Your call. If three are the same, they all go back in and three more come out. Do this for three to five rounds of 3-5 minutes each and take it up for about ten minutes afterward. Reinforce that this is not to make people feel stupid (at least not the first time out) but rather to help people see what they need to study / revisit / refresh. The next week, do it again, and the students will see an improvement in their own brain-stretching (reinforce that some parts of most exams require this lateral thinking skill). If they do it on their own in small groups a couple of times outside class, they’ll see an improvement of at least a letter grade in their exam results.

I’ve used this exercise since 1995. Students claim to love it and they are certainly more confident. Remind them that they are realizing what they do already know and what they don't yet know, and therefore should study. You can be more or less strict about the time limits and whether a group is allowed to trade in hopelessly difficult combinations or not. I’m pretty easygoing about the rules but I like people to force themselves to make connections between even the most difficult and unlikely combinations. Try introducing the game after only a few classes in order to get people thinking “big picture” right away.

Trevor Holmes, Senior Instructional Developer Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo (Adapted from P. Paolucci, “Shakespeare Salad” 1994-95. This update 2008.)

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