Brain Dump, Now What? (Summary Sheets Part 1)

This post is Part 1 of a 2 part series on Summary Sheets and Assessment.

Have you ever provided students with a partially completed (or completed) review guide prior to an assessment? Maybe a series of facts or questions they should be prepared to answer? Perhaps played review games or even offered a practice test prior to the assessment? We’ve all been there. We’ve all struggled with the best way to help our students prepare for summative assessments. 

That’s where I was until I read Make It Stick* and Fair Isn’t Always Equal in 2016. Not to say I still don’t run mental marathons considering ways to help my kids be more successful but, together, these books profoundly altered my views on teaching, learning, and assessment and my students have met with more success.

As a visual learner, I was struck by pages 208 & 231 in Make It Stick. Here, the authors describe how Mary Pat Wenderoth, a biology professor, had her students turn in a single sheet illustrating the learning from the previous week. Through the use of diagrams, phrases, and graphs, (think sketchnotes) these summaries allow her students to prioritize information and make connections. This made me consider how I might use a similar process to review for assessments. 

Over the last few years, I have expanded on this idea and refined my process for using summary sheets as a tool to review for assessment. Here’s what I do: 

Step 1Word vomit Students are given 10-15 minutes to complete Brain Dump activity. Using just the front side of a piece of paper, they are instructed to write down everything (charts, diagrams, phrases, equations, pictures) they can recall about a topic, in no particular order, without using any of their resources. After the time is up, students should compare their brain dump with a partner, adding missing information or correcting their initial work if necessary.  If time permits, you can snowball this or, as I’ve ineloquently called this in the past: think-pair-pair-share. Note: There can be a little productive struggle in this. Some students might state they are done after just a few minutes. Allow them time to think. If they seem to be on the cusp of giving up, you might ask questions like “do you recall what we did the day we had the fire drill last week” or “what were we exploring the day we used the whiteboards, the light, and the hemispheres?” This type of questioning will help remind students about the lessons without giving away the important information we want them to come up with on their own. 

Step 2: Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know Using the sheet from Step 1, students complete a practice assessment typically consisting of 30 multiple choice questions which cover the scope of the content being assessed. As students complete the assessment questions, they should confirm and identify information that would help them answer the questions posed and continue to add to or modify the information they’ve compiled on the front side of the paper. I let students use any reference materials during this process to ensure the information is accurate and accessible. TestWizard software is useful because it provides immediate feedback, allowing students to check their information for accuracy and identify gaps. Last year, I started having students complete this activity in pairs. I’ve found this provides an opportunity for dialogue and has enhanced the process for most students. Note: Occasionally constructed response questions (CRQs) are included in this practice exam, but these are generally practiced during class. If carefully selected, the multiple choice questions will cover the content and processes being assessed and therefore will suffice for this activity. 

Step 3: Synthesis At this point, the students should have a fair idea of the content and required skills they will encounter on this assessment as well as a comprehensive list of the information necessary to achieve success. I provide students with a piece of colored, 8×11, card stock paper to complete their final draft of the summary sheet. During a single 40 minute class period, students will organize or “chunk” their information to show relationships between and among the concepts and facts, ensuring they include appropriate equations, images, and examples to support their understanding. They may use both sides of the paper and again can access all class resources including the practice test. To assess the summary sheets, I use the single point rubric below.  Hint: I use a different color paper for each of our 7 major assessments. We keep the summary sheets in a folder and return them as students begin to review for the Regents Exam. Presto… color-coded review! Click the image  below to access the complete document.
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Since starting this process, my students report feeling more confident going into assessments and they have met with greater success. In my next post on summary sheets, I will share how I’ve integrated the sheets directly with the assessment.

In the meantime, I hope maybe I’ve encouraged one or two of you out in the nether nether of Internetlandia to consider this strategy to help your students prepare for assessment.  I’d love to hear what you think, so please comment, Tweet , or email me about your experiences with summary sheets and whether or not you observe any impact on retention.

*Credit where credit is due: I selected Make it Stick as one of the 5 books for our NYS Master Teacher (Capital Region) 2016-2017 Book Study PLT based on a recommendation by Tom Shiland. Tom is a NYS Master Teacher and widely regarded as the Clint Eastwood of Chemistry.


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