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Differentiated Exam Review Strategies

Whether you’re helping students prepare for a unit assessment, mid-terms, final exams, or standardized tests, effective exam review strategies are important. I’ve written about maximizing review time previously. In this post, we are looking at some specific ways to differentiate review strategies.

If we are honest with ourselves, many review sessions incorporate small groups where students socialize or split up study guides, divide and conquer style. Others involve teacher lecture. There are better ways to run review sessions. The key? Keep in mind what specific skills students didn’t truly learn the first time around, and remember that not every student needs to review the same concepts.

Where to Start

No matter what subject you teach, begin by analyzing some data. Know what your students’ current weaknesses are within the content. If you aren’t sure, give them a quick pre-test that features the types of questions on the exam. Also, ask students to tell you what they feel most and least confident about.

After you have this information, decide how you want to group students.

How to Differentiate

For areas where most students are struggling, conduct a whole-class mini-lesson. Otherwise, it would be most efficient and meaningful to tailor review to students’ areas of need. The most effective review approaches happen in small group format…with teacher support.

Small Group Activities

Here are some exam review strategies for small groups. These are most beneficial when the practice activities mirror how students will need to demonstrate understanding of the skills on the test.


Assign each student a skill that he or she needs to practice. For instance, with grammar, you may be able to find groups of students that need to work on commas,  transitions, sentence types, and punctuating quotations. Put all of the students who need to review that skill into one expert group, and have them work together to review class notes, engage in practice activities, and watch videos.

Then, have students break apart into secondary groups to give each person in their new group a brief review lesson on the grammar topic they were assigned. One of the best ways to learn a new concept is to teach it.


If you have students working in small groups based on skills they need to review, incorporate videos. You won’t be able to be with every group at once, and since they’ve already learned the material once, a good quality video should be enough to refresh their memory.

For example, here is one for in-text citations. And, here’s one for recognizing text structures. Can’t find the video you need? Make one! I like using Camtasia Studio, iMovie, Apple clips, and Explain Everything for creating instructional videos.


Stations allow teachers to incorporate a variety of skills into one review session. Choose the tasks you want students to review, and then select activities you think they will find both engaging and helpful. As students work, circulate the room, have one-on-one conversations, and provide support for individuals and small groups.

For instance, one station might involve reviewing important vocabulary with brain-based activities. Another might ask students to review informational text skills. A third station could include mentor sentence practice. Students could also play games or use a white board to re-teach one another skills or terms they need to know for the test. Sorts and task cards always make good additions.


Some students simply will not remember what they learn until they finally latch onto a meaningful association. If you feel like you’ve tried everything short of hopping into your students’ brains, maybe it’s time to get creative. When I think about the lessons I remember most from middle and high school, those involving associations pop out best. Acronyms and visual connections are at the top of the list, followed closely by related songs and videos. To illustrate…

  • Need students to remember subordinating conjunctions? Try using AAAWWUBBIS or WWAASABBI.
  • Working on academic vocabulary? Use pictures!
  • Want students to better understand parts of a paragraph? Maybe annotating and color coding would help.
  • Do you need students to better understand author’s purpose? Try this post-it strategy.

Differentiated and effective exam review session ideas for middle or high school ELA #HighSchoolELA #ExamReviewWhole Group Activities

If you’re looking for a way to make whole group activities more effective, try chunking the lecture and alternating whole group practice with individual or partner practice.

Mind Maps

Sometimes, students benefit from creating mind maps to see the connection between ideas. Try modeling how the parts of speech, for instance, relate to one another by beginning a mind map on the board. Do some think alouds.

Then, pause, and ask students to either individually continue the mind map, or to work on it with a partner.

Come back together as a group and finish the one you began. Take it further by having students discuss how theirs is similar or different. Of course, include definitions, examples, common misconceptions, visuals, and anything else that will help students deeper understand that concept.

Inject Practice into Lecture

Reviewing comma rules? Sure, remind students what they are with a visual aid. But! Instead of running through fifteen rules in a row, chunk them. In between whole-class examples, give students the opportunity to review on the spot individually. You can do this with almost any skill.

Use Student Writing

If you want to review important grammar and writing skills, use students’ writing from that school year. Discuss a skill, like using transitions to connect ideas logically, and then have students use a highlighter to find places in their writing where they implemented that skill. They can then use a colorful pen to make changes…perhaps they find an opportunity to incorporate that skill they missed earlier in the year.

Set Goals

Students need to know why they are taking this test. Why should they try? One way to help them take ownership is by conferencing with them one-on-one.

Walk through the year with students. Look at areas of strength and weakness, and talk about how they will be building upon those skills in the future. Then, together, set a goal for the exam that is meaningful to the student. You might be surprised how much more effort they put in when they have taken the time to set a goal.

Add some spice to your exam review sessions by trying something new. Incorporate more teacher-supported small group practice, set goals, and differentiate based upon students’ needs.

Most importantly? Circulate the room! It can be tempting to sit at our desk, grading papers, finalizing exams, or checking email. But, guaranteed – students will ask more questions and get more out of review sessions when the teacher is in close proximity.