The Swiss Cheese Summary

Below is an activity I’ve used for a few years.  Although I only teach AP Psychology now, I actually developed it in a modern United States history class.  I call it the Swiss Cheese Summary because there a lot of holes in the summary the student is tasked with improving.  It is easily explained and great for spaced practice and/or retrieval practice.  One of the main reasons I like it so much is its ability to let student and teacher assess the student’s learning or understanding of key events.  I believe it most easily applicable in history classes, but I can also see where it could be adapted for use in several other classes:

  • Math – Explaining or detailing steps to solving a problem
  • Science – Balancing formulas in chemistry or processes of bodily functions in anatomy
  • English – Describing sequences of events in a piece of literature
  • Art – Explaining the process of using certain techniques in creating a piece

So here goes:

  1. Begin with a quite obscure summary of an event or process; vaguely, or incorrectly, describe important steps or completely leave them out.  Below, I’m using the process of vision as my example:

A wave passes through the pupil and hits the lens.  The lens projects the wave onto the back of the eye.  The back of the eye has receptor cells that send a message to your brain.  

From this point, I generally either ask my students to improve upon this summary by including all relevant information that has been omitted (a brain dump of sorts)  or I may provide certain terms they need to use in order to correctly improve the summary. For instance, I may require students, when rewriting the summary, to include the terms cornea, iris, accommodation, retina, rods, cones, and optic nerve.  

So, maybe a more completed summary looks something like this:

A light wave enters the eye by passing through the cornea, the outside/protective layer of the eye. The cornea also acts to bend the light and provide focus. The light next passes through the pupil. The pupil is surrounded by the colored muscle called the iris.  Depending on the amount of light needed for proper vision, the iris can either dilate or constrict around the pupil. The lens is behind the pupil.  The lens focuses the light wave (accommodation) onto the retina on the back of the eye. The retina has different types of receptor cells, rods and cones.  Rods are more numerous in the periphery and are more sensitive to changes in the amount of light.  Cones are primarily found the center of the retina (fovea) and are responsible for the colors we see.  Light energy triggers a chemical change and activates bipolar and ganglion cells.  The axons of the ganglion cells come together to form the optic nerve, which sends the message to the brain for processing.

To take this activity to the next level, I often have my students complete this (and other retrieval activities) in three parts:

  1. First time through using only their brain and highlight these answers in one color.
  2. Next, students use their notes to help fill in some of the swiss cheese holes and highlight these answers in another color.
  3. Third time through, use the textbook or peers to both finalize all answers and check for correctness.  Highlight these answers in a third color.

Then have the students give themself three separate grades so they can see what they knew using only their brain, what their notes ‘knew’, and what the text/peers assisted them with. See more about this strategy here.

What variations can you think of to add to this activity?

How can the swiss cheese summary be used in your class?

Please leave a comment.  🙂

5 thoughts on “The Swiss Cheese Summary

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  1. Very impressed. You’re providing the students with the logic behind creating structure and ensuring one does the necessary research.

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