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Passing Notes - A Different Ways To Teach Your Students About Preparing Summaries
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How do you teach your students to study? Perhaps that sentence has one word too many; do you teach your students to study?

Preparing for exams is one thing common to every subject in high school, yet few students have more than the vaguest idea about what it means to study for an exam. Many students have been introduced to the visual summary techniques of structured overviews, mind maps and so on. I have found a little twist on the old idea that generates discussion, and sometimes discontent. It's called Passing Notes.

Passing Notes is simply a variation on your favourite visual summary. Let's take the structured overview as an example and set it in the context of studying for an Ecology exam.

Each student receives a piece of A4 paper and writes 'Ecology' in the centre with a box (or at least some shape around it). I like the students to be working in a group arrangement, with between 4 and 6 students per group. Around the central box (Ecology) they write down some of the key concepts they can remember (we can begin this activity by brainstorming). So students may have words like 'Ecosystems', 'Food Webs', 'Interrelationships', 'Flow of energy and materials', 'Human Impact' and so on. From each concept, they radiate boxes to more specific concepts like rainforest, desert, food chain, biomass pyramids, mutualism, parasitism, distribution and abundance, eutrophication and introduced species. They can then come up with one specific example for each of these sub-concepts.

Now it is time to do the twist.

Explain the process to the students. At this stage it helps if they have already completed one of these before. Then get an egg timer and give the students around 2 minutes to start their overview before you say "passing notes". When you do, the students need to pass their overview, in whatever state it may be, to the person on their left. Give the students another two minutes to read what is already on the summary sheet and start adding ideas of their own. After two more minutes, say "passing notes" and repeat the process. Keep going until the sheet returns to its original owner. Don't worry if the last student or two cannot add too much, at least they will be reading through a summary.

Some students don't like this activity, because their nicely set out overview gets scribbled all over in messy handwriting. That's OK. Give them a clean sheet so they can start over. Don't worry if some students don't write much, or write the same thing on each sheet. At least they are reading and engaging with the material in some way.

I find passing notes to be a fun way to challenge students' thinking and get them to organise their knowledge, whilst understanding that there is not necessarily one right answer to a given problem. Even your better students may pick up something fromanother student that they hadn't thought of including on their own sheet.

The most valuable thing about passing notes is it not only gives students the chance to prepare for an exam, it shows them how to study and organise their notes. This is an important skill which translates across all subjects and gives them one of those valuable tools for life.

Street Talk

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