Tomorrow is the last day of the second marking period, and during tomorrow's class, there is an exam. Today, students will prepare for that exam in one of several ways.
I don't post an opening problem today. Instead, I greet students individually and talk about how we've made it halfway through the year. I point to the diagram in the top-right corner of today's agenda (which has been there since the 15th week of school) and say that we're here at the orange dot, the end of the 20th week of school. I tell my students that I'm proud of what they've accomplished so far, and I ask if everyone feels like they've learned something so far. Students have some informal conversations about this question, with me or not, before the late bell rings.
At the bell, I review the agenda. I explain that the exam is about patterns, arithmetic sequences, and linear functions, and that I'm confident everyone is going to do well, especially if they can take a little time to study today. Then I ask today's guiding question: "What does it mean to study?"
I take a few answers from students. Some common responses: "You look at your notes," or "You go over some problems," or "You read the textbook." Sometimes I'll get an answer I love, like, "You make up your own problems," or students have paid attention, they'll butter me up by saying, "You make a cheat sheet!" A few really honest students might admit that they're not sure how to study. My follow up question is, "What do you look like when you study?" We have fun with this one for a moment when I ask everyone to mime what studying looks like.
"But the truth is," I say, "a lot of people know the word study, without really knowing what it means to do it. Today we're going to practice what it means to study." I outline the three particular steps we'll take today. We're going to review the learning targets, check the answers to some recent assignments, and make cheat sheets for the exam.
The first step in studying for a test is knowing what's going to be on the test. I've written four content learning targets on the board. Tomorrow's exam will be graded on these plus three Mathematical Practices (MP1, MP4, and MP7).
To begin our study session, I ask for volunteers to read each learning target aloud, then I elicit questions about each one. I encourage specificity in questions. If, after reading SLT 1.5, a student asks, "How do you do this?" I say that I'd like a more specific question. I ask if there are particular vocabulary words that students are wondering about. I tell everyone to find their notes about each SLT, and then to frame clarifying questions after looking at their notes.
After we read through the list, I ask if these learning targets are related, and how. Students can easily note that the words equation, linear, and graph each appear in more than one SLT. I let this conversation go where it will. With our study questions laid out, we can get down to business.
One way to study is to complete some practice exercises, and then to check if you've solved them correctly. I've prepared answer keys for Monday's homework and for Tuesday's homework. I have a few copies posted on the walls of the classroom, and there are scanned copies on the class blog, which students can access on smart phones. If the entire class wants to discuss a particular problem, I can also project it on the front screen.
I want students to recognize that it's most important to find and fix errors when they're studying. "You should be proud of all the problems you've solved correctly," I say, "but I think the most important problems are the ones that you didn't get right. Today, we need to figure out how to fill in any gaps in what you know."
The amount of time we spend with these answer keys depends on the class, and even on each individual student. I might move on to cheat sheet creation with some students while others continue to work on their own.
I always allow students to use their notes on a quiz, but exams are different. Students may not use their notebooks during an exam, but they are allowed to bring one "Cheat Sheet". A cheat sheet is one letter-sized (or smaller) piece of paper on which students can write anything they'd like to be sure to remember during the exam. Students may write on both sides of their cheat sheet. They may not make a photo copy of another student's cheat sheet.
I remind students that making a cheat sheet is one form of studying, because you're rewriting and re-organizing some important ideas. I also share an anecdote or two about past students who have made great cheat sheets, but then forgotten them come test day, only to report that they didn't really need to see their cheat sheet once they had the experience of making it.
Some students will be able to identify the cheat sheet notes they'd like right away, and will get straight to work. Others will need me to model how to make a good one. I have both copy paper and graph paper available. I distribute these as needed, then I suggest folding the page from top to bottom. This makes four spaces - top & bottom, front & back - and on learning target can be written in each. Then as time allows, I move through as many learning targets as I can, reviewing important ideas, vocabulary words, and algorithms related to each.
My notes might look like this. Some students will be best-served by simply copying these notes, which provides the opportunity to see what it feels like to study like this. Other students will have a good time making the cheat sheet their own. Once more we note that the more care someone puts into the cheat sheet, the less they're actually likely to need it. No matter what level of algebraic know-how each student takes away from this class, study strategies like these will make a durable takeaway.