The Big IDEA behind cumulative review

Last week I wrote about the work we adopted from KIPP Infinity around cumulative review.

There’s a huge learning benefit to intentional, daily, engaging review. Kids get more at bats with the content and skills.  Sustained mastery is possible (thought I guess there’s no such thing as un-sustained mastery).

There’s also a huge benefit to kids’ understanding of the idea of school and knowledge.  When we fail to do intentional, daily cumulative review we unwittingly encourage the idea that you are only learning for a test.

Cumulative review is one of the easiest ways to show kids the ways in which knowledge builds on itself.  Resurfacing prior content, even prior content that isn’t immediately relevant, increases the likelihood that kids will make meaningful and unexpected connections to the new content.  For example: a science teacher does a quick review of vocabulary from the human body unit before a lesson on pitch; a student compares the lowering pitch of loosened guitar string to a boy’s voice changing during puberty*.

The last two letters of the IDEA acronym seem like no-brainers.  After all isn’t everything in our classrooms supposed to be engaging and have all students working?

Engaging:  Engagement occurs when the teaching creates joy or meaning.

Feedback is a powerful way to provide meaning to an activity.  Quick quizzes or tests where they receive immediate feedback and chart their own growth may not be sexy but framed well they are engaging review because kids see their progress.   Some of our teachers use clickers or similar technology to give real time feedback to student answers.  Others simple flash answers on the overhead as students self-correct and chart their progress.

These quick quizzes speed up the pace of the lesson and keeps all students working far better than having kids answer a few questions and then share answers with the class.  The students and teachers can focus on reviewing the common errors and misconceptions rather than trudging through review of the whole quick.  It’s a beautiful example of the right behavior in the teaching cycle contributing to a classroom culture brimming with growth mindset.

Joyful cumulative review can occur in games, songs, and chants.  It can also use student creativity as the means to the end.  In a recent observation of Shauna Mulligan’s 9th grade English class she challenged the kids to write a poem about homework using four of their vocabulary words.  The wit and deep disdain for homework in the poems engaged the kids and allowed Shauna to hear how well the kids were using the vocabulary and adjust her instruction accordingly.**

This was the poem they were reading by the way.

High school teachers love the chance to teach risque content. 🙂

All students working pushes us to eliminate the common pseudo-review practice of asking a whole class question, calling on a few kids who raise their hands, and assuming the review is done.  This is akin to a politician conducting a poll at her headquarters and assuming it’s a representative sample.

In addition to their potential to engage students, games can also get everyone working.  However cumulative review games often are designed to violate the all students working principle.  Take the staple of classroom review: Jeopardy.  In most games there’s a moment where one or two student answers and everyone else watches.  Even in classrooms with strong cultures, where the kids are supportive and positive during competition, there’s often very few students required to do the thinking at any one time.

One workaround is having all students in a group answer the review question individually before the teacher calls one randomly to answer or all students hold up answers on individual whiteboard.  Many teachers in our schools use variations of this effectively.

Another important tweak to games is embedding reflective moments before/during/after the fun.  Even a quick turn and talk in the midst of a game “what’s one thing you got wrong that you know now that you didn’t know before?” can create a meta-moment where students’ awareness of their own learning increases.

Another wonderful move is teaching kids games that can become study tools.  Maddie Witter, formerly of Infinity, teaches kids a version of go fish with their vocabulary flashcards.  It allows the whole class to engage in review and becomes something kids do on their own.  Our teachers have done similar adaptations of Memory and Taboo.

As a coach seeing cumulative review’s effectiveness requires following the thread of a class throughout the year.  Though I don’t do it nearly as consistently as I should, observing with the scope and sequence in hand needs to be a regular practice.  There’s an iceberg of planning and organization for teachers behaviors underneath the cumulative principles outlined by IDEA.  After seeing IDEA’s impact in action it seems one of the the better initiatives for a school or an individual teacher to add to their repertoire.

* I made up this example after learning in Melissa Savage’s fifth grade science class that vocal chords actually do loosen like guitar strings.

** Creative challenges like the poetry require the teacher to frame carefully and react quickly to mean or inappropriate language.


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