Faculty Evaluation and Coaching Department
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Helping Your Students Build on Knowledge from Week to Week

Does it ever seem as though your students don't remember information that you've taught, even as recently as last week? Do blank stares or empty online discussion areas greet you when you ask what should be a review question at the start of class?

People remember best when they 1) connect new knowledge to conceptual frameworks (or "schemas") they already have, and 2) review that new information along with those conceptual connections often. Here are some ideas for using these two principles to help your students retain information from week to week.

Revisit the information during the week

Have students connect to the information, to you, or to classmates during the week by having them share thoughts and news related to your current topic. This can be done via email, a class blog, or Twitter. In online courses, of course, this can be done in the discussion area. Create a mid-week deadline for this task so that you don't get a crush of responses right before class starts.

Build on existing knowledge

  • Start out your demo or lecture with something students already know. Ask students to repeat or review something you've already taught. Then, you can "hang" this week's new content on the "hook" of existing knowledge.
  • Start a new unit by finding out what students know about terms they will encounter. You could conduct a "Background Knowledge Probe" to see what they already know or think they know about a subject.
  • Emphasize relationships between concepts and ideas, rather than isolated facts, ideas or skills.
  • Communicate with students before the end of class that the next module will build on this week's content.

Have students sketch out notes & key concepts

Encourage students to turn in a sketch, diagram, timeline, or another visual representation of what you've been working on. (Of course, you could model this practice as well.) This helps them review course content (whether they're steps in a technical procedure, concepts in a mind map, or events in a timeline) and synthesize it in a way that makes sense to them. Review of the concepts is key; research shows that the chief benefits of note-taking come from the review of those notes, not just the writing of them. (Kiewra et al, 1991)

Turn the schedule around

For future semesters, try using homework and other assignments as a way to PREview rather than REview what’s going on in class. PREviewing piques student curiosity and builds their existing knowledge prior to a relevant demo, lecture, or critique. Then you can use class time to ask unanswered questions or review unclear points.


More on Learning Snapshots or (CATs) to assess students' prior knowledge from IUPUI.

Also see our resources on Learning Snapshots (right-hand column):

Research on Note Taking: Implications for Faculty and Graduate Student Instructors from the University of Michigan