How to Plan a Review Session
Leading a review session presents a number of unique challenges, particularly for an inexperienced TA. In the usual case of a section that is part of a lecture course, you have less than an hour to go over material covered in three or four 50-minute lectures. You have to present your material at a pace and level that will be meaningful to students having trouble with the class without boring those who are doing well. You want to challenge students to think for themselves about the topics addressed by the course, but you need to avoid lengthy discussions that consume valuable class time.
To plan an effective review, make sure you understand what the professor thinks the students need to know and what the students will need to know to do well in the course. Students will not respond to even the most brilliant or entertaining TA if he or she does not cover topics and problems central to the course. To ensure that you do this, you should attend course lectures and obtain notes for any you must miss. Regular meetings with the professor and other TAs, as well as looking at past quizzes, problem sets, and exams, will help you determine your priorities and strategies.
Once you decide on key topics, you will probably realize that you cannot review all of the material in detail. You will have to choose between covering most of the material somewhat superficially or only representative parts in depth. Both strategies have their advantages. The former, by briefly reviewing all the important topics, will usually stimulate questions. Simply asking the students if they have any questions about the lectures rarely yields much response. If you decide to cover lots of material briefly, be sure to let the students know that they should investigate the same topics more deeply on their own. Encourage them to see you during office hours if they have any questions. If you choose to cover only a few topics in greater depth, mention other subjects that you won’t have time to cover but which are important. By concentrating on particularly difficult aspects of the course that may not have received adequate time in the lectures, you may trigger questions that students would otherwise be unable to formulate.
In preparing your presentation, if you come across some aspect of the material that you don’t understand, don’t hesitate to contact the professor for clarification. It is quite common for faculty, even in elementary courses, to present material that TAs may not have previously learned. Of course, you need to plan your review early enough so that you will have time to contact the professor with any questions.
When actually conducting the review, your style will usually be closer to that of a lecturer than a discussion leader. You will probably need extensive notes. You may also decide to put an outline on the board or distribute one on a handout. If you are new to lecturing, practice your presentation a few times beforehand. Don’t assume that just because you are “reviewing” material, you can improvise as you go or depend on students’ questions. The students are also more likely to come prepared if they see that you have taken the time to prepare.
Although every lecturer should attempt to gauge whether students are really understanding the topics, this is especially crucial for a review. Use plenty of examples to make your points and ask students to generate their own examples. Give students short problems to solve during the review. Let students practice the kinds of applications that they should be able to make if they have really grasped the major concept. After you ask a question, give everyone a minute or two to think before acknowledging a response; this way, less vocal or more reflective students will also have a chance to test themselves. An excellent alternative is to ask the students to pair up with their neighbors to discuss a problem or question for a couple of minutes. This active learning technique will increase the participation and understanding of your students.
By encouraging students to respond to the material with solutions or more questions, you will undoubtedly find that you are sometimes sidetracked. Because time is short and important topics are always too many rather than too few, you will have to cut off digressions—but tactfully. For example, respond to a question briefly, and then invite the questioner to pursue the topic with you further in office hours. Or explain that the issue raised is a good one but too complicated for the time you have left. Indicate that you will pursue it in the future, or that you can suggest other readings on it for those who are interested. Never cut a student off without explanation.
It is especially important in a review session to get feedback on whether you are covering what students feel they really need. The question “What would you like to do?” usually elicits little response, but you can expect more success by asking whether students would like you to review a specific topic or asking if the pace of the session has been too fast or slow. If you do sessions on a weekly basis, it is also helpful to hand out brief evaluation questionnaires to the students after the first few meetings so that they can tell you before it is too late if any improvements are needed. You can also ask your students to email questions or confusing points to you ahead of the review session so you can design it accordingly.
Finally, since reviews often require a great deal of preparation—either of notes or handouts—you might consider keeping a file of your efforts and making it available to future leaders of those sessions. Think how much easier your job might have been if someone had done the same for you! The professor will undoubtedly be grateful if you contribute such resources to his or her course teaching file and will remember your effort and organization when it comes time to prepare letters of recommendation.