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April 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 7

Art and Science of Teaching / Review for Retention

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To ensure that content stays current for students, teachers must plan for and provide cumulative reviews.

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Content will fade in students' memories if it's not reviewed systematically. Although teachers commonly engage students in reviews of content from previous lessons or units, they rarely engage students in reviewing the content from an entire semester or year. I refer to this as cumulative review.
Cumulative reviews are not only useful—they're also necessary. Consider the rather common practice of testing students at the end of a semester or year on previously taught (but not systematically reviewed) content. At the beginning of a semester, a 5th grade language arts teacher might emphasize chronologies—how to read them, how to create them, what type of information they provide, and so on. If the teacher doesn't address chronologies in subsequent units but includes them in a comprehensive test at the end of the semester, it's unreasonable to expect students to accurately remember what they learned about chronologies.

How to Do a Cumulative Review

To ensure that content stays current for students, teachers must plan for and provide cumulative reviews. These require a number of teacher actions.

Identify Crucial Information and Skills

Many teachers organize content into units based on standards, be they state standards, the Common Core standards, or the Next Generation Science Standards. Unfortunately, many standards statements are so broad that they fail to provide specific guidance concerning essential information and skills.
Consider the following 4th grade science standard: Make observations and/or measurements to provide evidence of the effects of weathering or the rate of erosion by water, ice, wind, or vegetation (NGSS-4-ESS2-1). The statement contains a great deal of content and a variety of goals:
  • Students will be able to make observations.
  • Students will be able to make measurements.
  • Students will understand what evidence is and will be able to provide it.
  • Students will understand what weathering is and will be able to recognize its effects.
  • Students will understand what erosion is and will be able to recognize it.
  • Students will understand how water, ice, and wind affect erosion.
  • Students will understand how vegetation affects erosion.
To determine which of these elements will be the subject of a cumulative review, a teacher must ask of each, "Will students be held accountable for this at the end of the semester or year?" In the list above, a teacher might determine that students will be held accountable for making measurements and understanding how water, ice, wind, and vegetation affect erosion. The review should focus on these elements.
The standards statement encompasses not only multiple goals, but also two types of content: declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge is informational, such as understanding what erosion is and how water, ice, and wind affect it. Procedural knowledge involves skills and processes, such as making observations and making measurements. Both kinds of knowledge are important to the cumulative review process.

Review for Declarative Knowledge

Cumulative reviews for declarative knowledge should help students identify errors and omissions in their original understanding. They should also help students merge new information with old information and organize the two into big ideas.
For example, students might have learned the following declarative knowledge about erosion: It's a natural process, human activities have increased erosion globally by 10–40 times, water and wind erosion are the two primary causes of land degradation, and so on. During a cumulative review, the teacher would ask students to identify anything new they had learned about erosion, even if they hadn't discussed it recently in class. A student who had read a news item that explained how irrigation can cause erosion could share this information with the class.
The teacher would then help students develop comprehensive statements about erosion, which would encompass everything they'd previously learned about the topic—for example, "Erosion is a process by which soil and rock are removed from their current location and transported to other locations by forces like wind and water."

Review for Procedural Knowledge

Cumulative review for procedural knowledge also involves adding to what students have previously learned. Let's say that an 8th grade social studies teacher presented students with a strategy for reading contour maps. During a cumulative review, students might describe how their experiences since the initial presentation have augmented their skill in this area. Their new experiences with contour maps might also help them identify errors and omissions in their original thinking. For example, a student might have watched a television program showing how barometric pressure in different regions can be compared using contour maps—something he or she was previously unaware of.
Cumulative review for procedural knowledge also involves developing fluency. The more procedures students practice, the more fluent they become. Like reviews focused on declarative knowledge, cumulative reviews for procedural knowledge should help students see how the original content fits into a bigger picture. In this case, the teacher might help students see how contour maps are similar to and different from other types of maps, such as topographical maps and thematic maps.

Make It Systematic

Ideally, some form of cumulative review should occur after every unit of instruction. Each time a cumulative review occurs, students should record in a notebook or online journal, in connection with that review, any changes and additions to their original knowledge base. Over time, students will be able to see the gradual shaping of their knowledge.

Simple But Powerful

Cumulative review is a straightforward and easily executed strategy that could have a large effect on student understanding. Probably the most difficult aspect is that it requires a thoughtful analysis of state and district standards statements to identify the declarative and procedural knowledge for which students will be held accountable at the end of the semester or year. But such analysis should pay big dividends in student learning over time.

Robert Marzano is the CEO of Marzano Research Laboratory in Centennial, CO, which provides research-based, partner-centered support for educators and education agencies—with the goal of helping teachers improve educational practice.

As strategic advisor, Robert brings over 50 years of experience in action-based education research, professional development, and curriculum design to Marzano Research. He has expertise in standards-based assessment, cognition, school leadership, and competency-based education, among a host of areas.

He is the author of 30 books, 150 articles and chapters in books, and 100 sets of curriculum materials for teachers and students in grades K–12.

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