Photo: Rod Searcey for Stanford CTL
Part 2 of a series. In Part 1, Marshall covered a highly realistic practice chemistry exam supported by peer tutors.
Exam time can be stressful for students, especially for many who have misconceptions about learning and have not yet developed effective study and test-taking skills. This article about coordinated, modular group review sessions is the second in a series that explores new and exciting approaches taken at Stanford to better prepare students for examinations.
They’re relatively straightforward to implement, and the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) can support you if you are interested in setting up something similar for your course.
In addition to traditional office hours with graduate TAs and drop-in hours with undergraduate tutors, Waheeda Khalfan, coordinator of Bio 41, 42 and 43, known collectively as BioCore, has teamed up with Tim Randazzo of CTL to implement small group review sessions prior to midterms and final exams.
Their goals in developing these sessions are three-fold:
Before each review session, students are asked to complete at home particular questions from exams administered in years past. These questions have been handpicked by the tutors and Khalfan to help students focus on specific problem-solving skills needed for the exam. After completing the questions, students then have the opportunity to attend one of these special review sessions to tease out what they might not have understood.
The material for a given exam is chunked into three different parts. A team of six undergraduate tutors divides into three teams that each take on one part of the exam (i.e. developmental biology, immunology, and neurobiology). Each team leads a 45-minute review module focused only on problem-solving for that portion of the exam. Each module is run three times, 45 minutes per module, giving students the option to attend all three sessions, to repeat one or two sessions multiple times, or to just attend one or two of the sessions once.
“It’s a little bit of a cookie cutter approach," explains Devan Diwanji, one of the tutors this year. "We do that because it’s one of the best ways to handle the immense volume that we get." Between 40 to 50 students attend these sessions. By reducing the ratio of students to tutors, the tutors are able to make the review sessions more interactive and answer individuals’ questions.
Introductory biology courses tend to introduce a lot of new content, and it can be difficult for students and instructors to find a good way to dive into exam-style problems when students are still struggling to grasp key concepts. That's where the tutors come in.
Khalfan helps explain where tutor-led, problem-solving sessions fit into the mix of all of the department's offerings: "A lot of times open office hours might get consumed by students who just have conceptual questions, and so we never necessarily talk about exam questions and how you solve those. The graduate TAs run a review session, but they do a more lecture-style review session to sort of hone in and basically try to drill the key concepts. I find that what’s great about this review session that CTL offers is that it’s filling that gap. It’s something that otherwise we don’t provide.”
One of the greatest benefits of these sessions, says Diwanji, is that students are facilitating discussion amongst their peers. "That means that students are actually learning from each other. That is something that I lacked when I took the Bio courses. It was much more of an individual study, and just by tutoring I could see that there are a lot of advantages to learning from each other."
Diwanji also argues for the benefit of current students learning from past students. "The tutors have been through the BioCore. We know how stressful it is, how grueling it can be. And there’s a lot of information to take in at one point in time, so sometimes we serve more to console them and to say, ‘Yes, we know that it’s a lot of information. Here are the sections that you should pay particular attention to."
Tutors know what parts are likely to be tricky or confusing because they stumbled over them just a few months before. "We can talk from personal experience, which is something that I think professors may not be able to do, because they are so removed from when they were undergrads and first learning this information," says Diwanji.
Things are looking good for this program. According to the written feedback that Randazzo has collected after the sessions, “the majority of the students said that the review sessions helped them gain a deeper understanding of the subject. Most of them said that they think it had a positive impact on their grade, and most of them also said that they would want to attend more review sessions in the future.”
Khalfan also points to the Biology department's greater integration with CTL services as an additional success of these sessions. The Biology department now regularly refers students to the tutoring services at CTL, and in turn, those tutors provide support that is more in line with the learning objectives for the biology core classes. According to Khalfan, "The benefit of the greater integration has been that because we in BioCore know more about the CTL tutoring side and how it works, we can do a better job of advertising to students about what CTL tutoring offers." Moreover, when students do go to these review sessions, they get to know the tutors and then are more likely to attend tutoring later on.
Part of the tutors' success seems to be the cohesion of the group of six students who have committed to leading these review sessions for multiple quarters. In Diwanji's own words, "We are a group of self-motivated students, and we want to improve the lives of the BioCore students.” The group's cohesion is also something both Randazzo and Khalfan celebrate.
Additionally, Khalfan makes sure that tutors have access to all of the same material support that graduate TAs have. That includes materials that TAs might have generated in years past, solution keys to problem sets, and any other materials that may not normally be shared with students who are not tutors. She also helps set up the room and assists the tutors with the logistics of setting up each review session. Other than that, it's their show.
“These tutors are fabulous," says Khalfan. "A lot of times I am just watching on the side. I may offer a suggestion or two, but it’s very peripheral. It’s really driven by them. They are the ones making decisions about how to break down topics. I think it’s great to see that, you know?”
Would modular review sessions work for your course? How does your department handle the potential gap in conceptual learning and the application of those concepts to problem-solving? How do you prepare students for examinations? Please comment below.
Anna Koester Marshall is a doctoral candidate in Iberian and Latin American Cultures.