Please don’t hold out-of-class review sessions


Some professors are so dedicated to the success of their students that they are generous enough to hold review sessions before an exam, outside regular class hours.

This is a tremendously poor idea, for one big reason and one smaller reason.

The big reason is that it is inherently unfair to the students. Not every student is equally available to make it to an additional session outside class hours. Holding a session that not all students are available to attend confers an advantage to the students who are more available for the times designated for a review session. (This rationale is similar to the one fort why we shouldn’t offer extra credit.)

Students are aware that these review sessions are a moment of the big reveal about what is going to be on the exam, where professors give hints about what is important to study and what is less important. Even if this isn’t true, this is the widespread perception. I know that when I was a student, not attending one of these sessions was a huge disadvantage.

Therefore, students will go to all extremes to attend a outside-class review session. I know students who have skipped out on their work obligations to make such a session, and I also a student that once missed an important and difficult-to-schedule medical appointment for this kind of session.

A standard lecture course at my university has about 45 contact hours. If that’s not enough time to cover the curriculum and prepare students for exams, then the solution isn’t to add another hour of optional class. Instead, the curriculum, or how it’s taught, should be fixed so that everything that students need for exams can happen within the time scheduled for class.

Students who might feel that outside-class review sessions are unfair are likely to not complain. Such a complaint would arouse the ire of fellow students, would be particularly upset if the gift of a review session were revoked because of a spoilsport.

I ask: why is such a review session needed? It is because the students haven’t learned as much as they needed to prior to the exam? If that is the case, it is the result of deficiencies on the part of the instructor or of the students. If it’s the deficiency of the students, then those who didn’t invest as much as others don’t need an extra boost, just like they shouldn’t receive extra credit. If the failure of students to be adequately prepared for the exam is the fault of the instructor, then adding extra optional class time isn’t a professional way to fix pedagogical shortcomings.

The smaller reason to not hold out-of-class review sessions is that this practice increases the emphasis on high-stakes testing and further drives students to obsess about what is on the exam rather than learning the material comprehensively.

Let’s face it: students who attend these sessions and ask questions are, predominantly, focused on discovering what questions will be on the exam. They may very well be seeking knowledge and understanding about the course material, but their focus is to do well on the exam rather than to learn. Moreover, I believe that’s the focus of faculty who offer such sessions as well, to help students do well on the exam by providing even more preparation. That’s an admirable goal, but all students deserve equal and fairly distributed access to such opportunities.

So, what’s the harm with offering a review session that gets students to study more than they would otherwise? Here’s the harm: it gets them studying for an exam. If students are cramming for an exam, they’re not learning in the long term. Instead of spending time focusing our teaching on getting students to jump through the hoops of exams, we could design our classes for substantial and long-term engagement with the material. The more we freak students about exams and focus on them, the less they will engage in genuine, self-driven, inquiry.

4 thoughts on “Please don’t hold out-of-class review sessions

  1. Terry – I agree with you (and I personally don’t care for taking any class time for a review session). IF a review session is held, it must be during regular course hours. One option is to do an on-line discussion/review session – i.e., using a course management system, the Prof could be on-line for a Q&A discussion period for a hour or two, at a few different times. I’ve used this approach very successfully in the past.

  2. I try to get around some of the issues you raise by doing a few things. First, they are run by the TA, and the TA has not seen the exam – that way, they can’t give any hints, only answer whatever questions students bring to the session. Second, we ask we ask students and the TAs to take notes on the questions and answers and post them all on the class web page. Third, we ask students to submit questions by email, and will share answers with the whole class (we do the same when questions are emailed to us over the course of the semester). Finally, we will meet students in groups or alone at a time that works for them – whatever fits their schedule.

    Frankly, I’m not sure these sessions help much anyway (they never helped me). But if they get students to identify gaps in their notes, there is some use for them.

  3. If I have a review session it is always during class time. Our campus offers free tutoring services for any class, so if students need more help preparing for exams I refer them to the tutoring center.

  4. I try to get around some of the issues that you raise by holding a review session during reading week at our regularly scheduled class time. Regular classes are not being held, but the students all have the time slot free. I offer no “big reveal.” Instead, we review together.

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