New Algebra Review Strategy

New Algebra Review Strategy


This semester I am teaching a short term intermediate algebra class. I taught this last year, and I taught a chapter each week followed by a week to review for the midterm. I repeated the same schedule for the final. This semester I have changed the schedule and have had great success. After I finish covering each chapter, I devote a day to reviewing that chapter immediately.

I bring in an old copy of a chapter exam, and the review takes place in 3 parts.

  • I give the students 30 minutes to work the exam on their own. I do not allow them to use notes or any other reference materials.
    30 minutes might seem a little short, but I do write my (1-hour) exams to be on the short side, and most students can get through a majority of the problems in 30 minutes.
    I then have the students identify each problem as a 1 (I have this under control), 2 (I need a little help), or 3 (I need a lot of help).
  • Once students have rated each problem I have them pair up and try to help each other. Many times students who have a problem marked as a 3 can find a student who has it marked as a 1 who can hep them to understand the problem. If the pair of students struggle with the same problem, they can refer to their notes to try to make sense of the problem.
    After another 30 minutes I have the pairs rate each problem again.
  • The third part of the review involves me. I ask students to tell me which problems are still giving them trouble. We have done this for 4 chapters, and each time we narrow it down to 3 or 4 problems that several students are struggling with.
    I work through each problem, asking for students in the class to lead the discussion. What did you try? What is important to remember here? I also offer my advice.

My students have found this very rewarding. One of the strengths of this approach is encouraging students to use retrieval practice. So many times I have heard students say that they thought they had it under control only to have things fall apart on the exam, but if they had put themselves in a test situation without test consequences they may have realized that they were not as prepared as they thought they were.

Another strength of this approach is that students get a chance to turn to each other for help. Often the advice of a classmate will be more helpful to a student than just watching me solve a problem again.

After the midterm I asked my students if they would rather review after each chapter or save all of the review days until the end of the semester, right before the final exam. They overwhelmingly voted to continue with the same review process.

I’d highly recommend giving this a try in your class. Do you have a class that only meets for one hour a day? Try having the students work through the problems, both alone and then in pairs on one day. Then have a debriefing session the next day where you can address their questions.

How do you structure your review sessions? I’d love to hear what you do. Please leave a comment!

– George

I am a mathematics instructor at College of the Sequoias, and an Algebra/Statistics author with Pearson. Follow me on Twitter (@georgewoodbury) or reach out to me through the contact page on my website.

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4 thoughts on “New Algebra Review Strategy

  1. Q: How do you choose the problems for the practice test for the review day? Do you give them the exact problems you will be testing (different numbers, of course) or do you give them random problems from the chapter? I can’t figure this part out.

    I do teach 1-hour classes so I am wondering if I could give the practice test as a take-home assignment and then have them pair up during class. Not sure it would have the same impact because they wouldn’t be put into a pseudo-test situation ahead of time. I think that is invaluable.

    Love this idea – just trying to figure out how to use it in my situation.

    1. Hi Diane – In a one hour class I use the same approach but instead with a “mini test”. I give them the problems I feel are most important, but a subset of what will be on the test.
      You could shoot for 20 minutes working alone with another 15 minutes or so for pairing up. The remainder of the time can go to your walk through of the problems.
      I think the time working alone under test conditions is very important. They need to experience that situation without the test consequences to get an honest assessment of where they are in their preparation. It’s great retrieval practice.
      This semester I have been bringing in old exams, but I do not make an exact match when typing up this semester’s test.

  2. George,
    I tried this technique last week and it went great! I only had 50 minutes so I had to skip the step where they work together. I gave them 25 minutes to take the ‘quiz’ and then 5 minutes to review and number their problems with a 1, 2, or 3 like you suggested. Then I stood at the board and went around and asked each student to give me one of their ‘3’s. We got a lot done and everyone left the room with a better understanding of where they needed to spend their time studying. The grades seemed to be really good for this test and they actually did much better on the ‘3’ problems than some of the other ones. Thanks and keep those ideas coming!!

    1. That is great news – help them to find where they are struggling, then find ways to straighten that out. Glad to hear it went well!

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