George Lucas Educational Foundation

Review Overload and How to Keep Content Fresh

With so much time now spent reviewing for tests, here are five ways to improve the quality of both instruction and assessment in your classroom.

January 12, 2017

In my research for a new book that focuses on student engagement, one of the things I’ve discovered is that students really want to “learn something new!” Of all the responses that were recorded, this one is the most surprising. I mean, it seemed obvious that learning new things was more exciting than hearing the same things over and over, year after year, but it wasn’t until I got deeper into the research that I realized just how much time per school year was spent not learning new things.

One key reason for so much review over the course of a school year is testing. Federal tests, state tests, district tests, classroom tests, and review for those tests mean a tremendous amount of time is spent on older material. All that testing means less time spent on new material and new learning, and more time stuck in repeat.

Drill-and-Kill Is No Educational Model

As President Obama says in a video posted on the White House Facebook page: “[In] moderation, smart, strategic tests can help us measure our kids’ progress in school, and it can help them learn. . . . But I also hear from parents who, rightly, worry about too much testing, and from teachers who feel so much pressure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning, both for them and for the students.”

What followed was the Obama administration recommending limiting testing to 2.5 percent of instructional time in the classroom. Despite the president’s well-intentioned recommendation, the merit of testing is still questionable, as many of the students who fail are then stuck in the tar pit of drill-and-kill classes. These are classes that review and review and review with the assumption that reviewing material over and over will miraculously add up to fundamental knowledge acquisition. Unfortunately, remedial classes such as these stifle their ability to think critically—a skill that has little to do with much of what they are drilled on.  

It’s important to note that this isn’t all the fault of what’s dictated by the federal government. Frankly, the burden of blame for over-testing and over-reviewing falls on all educators’ shoulders. It’s something that we all must own and that we all can do something about.

So How Much Time Are We Talking, Really?

About that 2.5 percent recommendation: Is there more time at stake here? Let’s really look at a breakdown of approximately how much time is spent on testing during a school year:

  • One week per year on federally and/or state mandated assessments
  • One week per quarter on district testing
  • One week per quarter to prep for the district assessment
  • One quiz per week in the average classroom
  • One test every two weeks in the average classroom

In fact, once we get into time allocated for test prep, the number of instructional minutes drops dramatically. The Seattle Times reported in 2014 that more than 18 percent of time in U.S. classrooms was devoted to test preparation. Additionally, the Center for American Progress found that 52 percent of the assessments taken by students in a county in Florida were mandated by the district, while less than half were state required. What this could mean nationally is that over-testing is not only a state and federal problem but a local problem as well.

When test preparation and testing time are combined, we are talking about more than 20 percent of a student’s instructional time being spent in review. And this figure doesn’t even account for the time typically spent during the school year reviewing the prior year’s skills and content. In some districts and schools, that varies from a full quarter up to a possible entire semester of review time before new content instruction even begins. 

Keeping It Fresh

So what can we do to combat this problem while still addressing the need for repetition in our content areas? The good news is that there is much we can do to take responsibility for the quality of both instruction and assessment so that both can feel much more fresh and, yes, even new. Here are five things we teachers can do:

1. Have students bring in resources related to your content. Let’s face it: You have 30 to 40 different brains in your classroom that might be looking at the material in a new way. Teach the students to be teachers. Put them in charge of communicating concepts to each other. Believe me, they will come at it in totally different ways than you would. Have students bring in examples from the world outside of school that align with the concept you are trying to teach or that you are reviewing. Invite other brains to the table.

2. Bring an expert into the classroom. This suggestion is central to project-based learning, but it also really aligns with simply bringing a fresh voice into the classroom. When experts are brought in to lend their perspective to the students’ learning, it always means something new for those students to think about.

3. Confer with lower grades about their process and material. It’s always good to vertically articulate with the grades lower than your own. Don’t wait for your school or district to arrange for formal meetings. Talk to people yourself. 

  • How often did a previous teacher hit this particular standard? 
  • Did the previous teacher already teach the biography of a specific author? 
  • Have students already participated in a specific experiment? 
  • While there is, of course, the argument to go deeper with each repetition, have your students already dissected owl pellets for the past two years?  
  • Have your students already read the short story “The Jacket” in language arts classes? 

Unless you plan on going deeper, presenting the information in a new way, or bringing in a fresh outlook on a particular lesson, you need to be aware that it might be review for many of your students.

4. Follow people, subscribe to feeds, and become a current content curator. Continue to find newness in your professional development and learning. The more you have your finger on the pulse of current thinking, current discoveries, and current resources, the fresher your class content will be. From Twitter to Facebook, iTunesU classes to pop culture feeds, keep growing your knowledge of your content area. 

5. Stay current on pedagogy. Don’t just keep current with resources on your content; also follow those who help you learn up-to-date and upcoming trends in pedagogy. They can help you freshen up how to communicate your content. Be fearless in trying innovative ways to present your content and creative ways students can present their learning. It’s not that you can’t use age-old and tried-and-true methods, but just keep in mind that other teachers are using them each year as well.

Repeating what we’ve done in the past, how we’ve done it, and then pressing repeat again takes away from engaged learning and engaged teaching.   

How do you keep things fresh in your classroom? Please share in the comments section below.

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  • Curriculum Planning
  • Student Engagement

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