Last year during the middle of my first semester of teaching our college success course, I noticed my students becoming less motivated and demonstrating obvious signs of boredom and discontent. Knowing that the half way point in a semester is a critical time when many students lose their motivation and succumb to increased absenteeism, I brainstormed with a fellow college success instructor to see if I could come up with new activities to rekindle my students’ interest as we began a unit on test taking strategies.
My colleague said that one activity she had done was to have her students each prepare a poster illustrating some of the information discussed in the text book. I decided to adapt this idea with my students to stimulate motivation. I also anticipated that the activity might foster team work and interdependence, as well as develop skills in creative and critical thinking and oral communication.
Since one of the purposes of the college success course is to encourage good habits for lifelong learning, I told students that their professors practice lifelong learning when we attend professional conferences. I told them about the practice of poster sessions as a method of sharing information with a large number of people. I informed them that we were going to hold our own poster sessions to teach each other about the four major categories of test taking skills discussed in our textbook and in the supplemental notes I provided.
Although I developed this activity to teach successful test taking strategies, it can be adapted for use with any student success skill, and academic instructors can use it to help students learn virtually any course content. For example, algebra students could develop posters to illustrate different problem solving methods, psychology students could develop posters explaining various psychological theories, and chemistry students could review different classes of chemical compounds and their practical applications. This activity was so successful that I now do it each semester.
For our test taking unit, I divide the assignment into four general categories of information: What to do before an exam, what to do during an exam, how to handle test anxiety, and how to take a math or science exam. Students use information from their text, class notes, and supplemental information from the internet or other sources.
I create teams of two students, inviting each pair to decide which one of the four topics they will address with their poster. I encourage students to choose so that all four topics will be represented in the posters.
Here is the assignment I provide to students:
- Read the section of the text that relates to the topic your team chose.
- Choose three to five main strategies that you think are most important or useful.
- Provide one example or explanation for each of the strategies.
- Develop a poster illustrating these main points, using a theme if you wish. Be creative and make it fun!
- Give a 2-3 minute team oral presentation explaining the major test taking strategies you chose. Each team member must have a speaking part in the presentation as well as an equal share in the development of the poster.
I allow one 75 minute class period and then approximately another 30 minutes of a second class to finish the posters. We wrap up the second class period with the teams’ oral presentations of the posters.
Having students work on their posters in the class allows them to work collaboratively, share ideas, and practice problem solving, communication, team work, organization and human relations skills. With the time constraints, they must be focused, manage their time and stay on task. I observe each team to ensure that all members are participating in the development of the poster, and I assist students who have difficulty finding information or coming up with ideas.
I provide all materials used to make the posters, including poster boards, colored markers, clip art, glue sticks and even glitter. My department provides a small amount of money for such purchases, but for instructors without similar funds, this activity can be implemented with only a few materials brought in by students. The cost to students would be minimal for a poster board and a pack of colored markers.
In my experience, most student posters are creative and effective. For example, one poster addressing pre-test strategies was titled “Blast Away with an A.” Featuring a construction paper rocket, the poster used a space/astronaut theme to identify and explain four test preparation strategies. Another poster featured Albert Einstein and his mathematical theories as the backdrop to five successful strategies for taking mathematics tests. Most posters are very colorful, eye catching, some humorous, and all capture students’ interest as well as course content.
After the oral presentations, we have a debriefing discussion to identify what students learned and felt while completing the activity. It is important that they are able to identify the specific skills they addressed with the activity and realize they did more than simply spend a class period drawing and coloring. Debriefing questions include:
- Did this activity help you learn the academic material in a meaningful way? Why or why not?
- What other skills did you learn from this activity besides the academic knowledge that you shared with us?
- What problems or difficulties did you have with this assignment? How did you handle them?
- What new knowledge did you discover about yourself as a result of this activity?
- What new knowledge did you discover about your classmates as a result of this activity?
The benefits of this activity are numerous:
1. Students learn the academic content. They actively engage in creating their own learning tools and then use them to teach each other the course content. By explaining the information to others, students enhance their own understanding and mastery of the material. I assign a follow up writing assignment where students choose one of their other college courses and explain how they use the four categories of testing strategies when they take an exam in that course. Students evaluate how useful the test taking strategies were for the exam and demonstrate a mastery of the information through application.
2. Students practice positive interdependence working in pairs. With many teams, there is a clear but equal division of labor based upon individual talents and abilities. Many times I observe students who are comfortable coming up with ideas for the posters but uncomfortable with the drawing and designing portion, while their team mate is more than willing to demonstrate his/her artistic talent by taking the idea and making it come to life on paper.
3. Students practice creative thinking. Many students have difficulty with creativity at first, perhaps because in college many instructors give students specific criteria for projects and students are used to following a rubric or check list when working on projects. It takes awhile for some of them to become comfortable with creative and independent thinking, but once they do, fun and creative learning experiences result. One of the more creative posters featured a headline of “Tackle Test Anxiety” and used small foam footballs labeled with four methods to overcome test anxiety. The student presenters continued their creative approach with their oral presentation by tossing to classmates foam footballs with test anxiety questions written on them and having each student answer the question and receive a reward for a correct answer.
4. Students practice and develop oral communication skills. Many students fear public speaking and lack confidence when making presentations. The safety in numbers philosophy is present and students feel more comfortable when they present in pairs. Some of my colleagues who teach public speaking report that their students have said they are not quite so fearful of giving presentations in the speech class because they have had some practice in their college success course.
5. Students develop a community of learners. In one of my sections, when one team of students experienced stage fright during their presentation, the other members of the class were genuinely caring and supportive, waiting patiently for the presenters to regain composure and come back to finish their presentation and show their poster.
6. A sixth and final benefit of poster presentations is that students stop demonstrating signs of discontent and boredom. They become empowered and more active in class discussions and activities, and overall attendance has increased while incidences of tardiness decreased. Several students have shared their appreciation for learning in a way that enables them to use the information we cover, and seeing the value of what they are learning helps them enjoy the class.
After the second time that I did this activity, I collected the posters and taped them up in the classrooms where our college success courses are taught. My college success students were thrilled when they walked into classrooms around campus and saw their posters. I told the students that their teaching tools were now teaching students all over campus how to be successful test takers. This was tremendously empowering to the students because at our institution, the majority of students enrolled in the college success course are academically under prepared and enrolled in developmental education courses. They now can see themselves as successful students who are teaching others how to be academically successful.
As a result of seeing the posters, other college success instructors have implemented this activity and the posters are multiplying around campus. This is one activity that helps create a culture of success at our campus.
–Jana Bernhardt, Faculty, Social Sciences & Teacher Education and College Success Coordinator, Central Florida Community College, FL