December 10, 2017 5:46 pm

Norman Eng

Final exams are upon us. Time to remind students that re-reading and highlighting their textbooks won’t help much.

Why not?

Because absorbing information won’t make it stick.

Students need to do the opposite: Get information OUT of the brain. Cognitive scientists like Pooja Agarwal call it retrieval practice. There are many ways to do this.

Today, I talk about one: Affinity mapping.

Sometimes called affinity diagrams. The idea comes from the business world—specifically project management.

Affinity mapping is a great way to organize and clarify lots of information. Like the kind needed for final exams.

Let’s take one topic: “major theories of education.” Something my students need to know in their foundations class.

Step 1: Do a Brain Dump Using Post-it Notes

Get students in groups of 4-5. Or just do this as a whole-class activity. Then brainstorm everything they remember about educational theories. Like progressivism, critical theory, John Dewey, social justice, activity-based curriculum

Write each one on a post-it note. Stick it on their desks (or the board), like this:


Step 2: Organize the Post-its

Here, students organize the post-it notes—in whatever way they see fit. No need to assign labels beforehand. Maybe students group by names of famous people. Maybe they group everything into 4 major theories.



As long as there is some sort of relationship. That’s why it’s called affinity mapping. The connections are what make learning stick. You provide guidance where needed.

Step 3: Share Affinity Diagrams with the Class

Have students take a picture of their diagram with their phone and upload it to your email or to a shared cloud-based service, like Dropbox or Google Docs. Then project the diagrams on the screen. Discuss.

No Internet service? Then have each group share how they grouped their information. Or have everyone walk around and take a look.

By the way, affinity maps are just one option. Venn Diagrams work. How about tables and charts? The point is to demonstrate what students know in graphic ways. That’s different from the typical way they process information (i.e., through lectures and texts).

The more students retrieve information out of their brain and the deeper they see interrelationships, the more the learning sticks.

That’s it.

So, what are other ways you prepare students for finals?

  • Just in time! Love this idea of connecting ideas and pieces of info to each other in order to get a deeper understanding. Will definitely try this.

  • Norman, thanks for the affinity mapping exercise/activity. I usually just hand out a study guide and wish them luck. This will give me a chance to be more intentional with our pre exam reviews and get them involved in their own learning.
    This is on my to add list for next semester. I also teach online, and have several adjunct faculty who teach online as well. Is there a way of creating this sort of synergy in the asynchronous teaching modality?

    One other question for which you may have insight. How have e-textbooks impacted your Students’ success? I have colleagues on both sides of adopting etexts, pro and con.
    What’s your opinion, and do you have any research, anecdotal or otherwise to support your position?

    Thanks Norman!

    Thanks for all that you do!

  • Eugene,

    Most of my experience with e-texts is anecdotal, although I do remember reading a study that found usability issues with etexts, meaning that students who wanted to take notes or go back to certain sections had difficulty navigating. Many of my students buy them purely becasue they are cheaper, renting them in many cases. Don’t know their impact on success. Perhaps something I might do a blog post on. Thanks.

  • Prior to exams, students demand a study guide. What is your opinion about study guides and what is the best way to make one for the students.
    I’ve heard students describe other teachers’ guides. One gives the exact answers she will be asking. So basically students just need to know the answers and they should get A”s.

    • Hi Cristina! Study guides are fine. But there isn’t one best way to make one. It depends on the course you teach, the students you have, and the exam you create. For instance, an exam mostly based on facts & terms is going to have a different study guide format than one requiring students to apply what they learned.

      I would never recommend providing exact answers in the study guide, which defeats the purpose of assessments (i.e., to determine how much students learned). Study guides should provide focus: the concepts, terms, areas that are most important.

      The key is not just to list these terms, but to draw out their thinking about those terms. Perhaps with a question or a prompt. For example, if “supply and demand” is an important term for an econ final, then perhaps write in the study guide: “Explain how supply and demand are interrelated.”

      Sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how often profs just list the important terms. A good study guide will give students an opportunity to grapple with the concept and get them to explain it in their own words, I would add spaces or blank lines to encourage them to WRITE it down, rather than just think of the answer.

      • With regards to study guides, I’m wondering why the students aren’t making their own study guide. I addition to teaching the Introduction to Education class, I am on our Integration Team. We are in the initial stages of trying to implement explicit integration of study skills within content courses. One of the specific skills we are working on is teaching students to create study guides for their general education courses.

        The students can identify the major concepts of the course and through explicit instruction on how to write effective discussion questions they can develop their own study guide. Individually, students should be able to write an adequate study guide, and then if they have the opportunity to work in groups and merge their information they should have a pretty effective study guide.

        As faculty members we are all busy, so we don’t need to do work the students are capable of doing themselves. At the college level, if they are given explicit instruction, they should be able to achieve this task. If we have high expectations for our students many of them will meet those expectations and probably learn more in the process.

        • I agree, Teri, that students should take charge of their own study guides. My concern is that they don’t know how and most professors have never thought about (much less know how to) integrate study skills within content courses.

          If the first step is awareness, then the next step is education/training. And many profs simply have never learned how to teach students (the way many K-12 teachers do in ed schools). It is nice to see an emerging emphasis in this area. For now, it’s great that some colleges/admins are taking steps to augment their faculty’s instructional capacity through workshops, online courses, and teams like yours.

          I will look into writing a post about this topic.

  • I usually do a flash card session. It entices the students to summarize the key points, then write out words to help make word associations. I also recommend study groups, though I need to leave it to the students to decide who they are most comfortable studying with.

  • Calling it a Brain Throw-down instead of a Brain Dump might have a better connotation. Just a thought.
    Great ideas. Thanks.

  • Great ideas. These are from Peter Brown, et al’s “Make It Stick” book which is a must-read. The authors provide several evidence based strategies that have since become well known but not well used enough. Retrieval practice, interleaving and low stakes quizzing being a few.

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