GUEST POST – Regulating the Routes to Knowledge: The Traffic Light Review

GUEST POST – John Mohl teaches psychology at Cheltenham High School and Bucks County Community College, both in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. He has conducted empirical research primarily in the areas of hypnosis and hypnotic phenomena. He is the current president of the Society of Psychological Hypnosis, Division 30 of the American Psychological Association. 

Teachers frequently give study guides to students for upcoming assessments, especially during the midterm and final exam season. Some guides may simply be a list of concepts that correspond to questions on the exam, with the expectation that students study those terms (I have been guilty of this in the past). Such a pithy rehashing of ideas may appear suitable to students, but does this really provide any benefit? It might indicate what to study, but it fails to inform students of their mastery of the material, nor does it promote the use of effective study techniques. Even worse, given that students rely on ineffective learning strategies, I can only imagine that their studying is hardly any better. Students may just reread their textbook or notes, which is not only a poor studying technique, but it also instills a sense of false confidence in their knowledge of what are trying to remember. Effective study guides inform the student of how well they know the material and provide direction to how they should study.

This vocabulary review activity aims to accomplish both objectives. It was inspired by the work of The Learning Scientists, as well as Blake Harvard’sColor Coding Recall Activity.  Students are given three colored pencils: green, yellow, and red (thus the term “Traffic Light Review”[1]) and a chart with two columns, one for the vocabulary terms and the other for the respective definition or application. Using the green pencil, they “brain dump”, or write as many terms, definitions, and applications as they can freely recall from memory.  For example, they may be asked to write all of the major parts of the brain and their function without any visual aids or other retrieval cues.  After five to ten minutes, they are presented a list of the vocabulary terms (but not the definition/application). Using the red pencil, they write down any terms that were not already on their list. If students recognize any of the new words (written in red) and know their respective definition/application, they write out the latter using the yellow pencil. Finally, students are provided with the definition/application of all of the terms. Anything that is missing on their paper (or corrections that need to be made) is written with the red pencil.

This activity has two purposes. First, it is retrieval practice for students, in which they try to recall as many ideas from memory. This, in turn, reinforces and strengthens their memory of the material. Second, it gives students a visual of how much they currently know. Information written in green indicates that they likely have a good solid understanding of the material, and are able to remember it without prompting. Material in yellow means that their knowledge of the material is there, but they may need some retrieval cue to help them access it. Items in red may suggest that the material is not as well-learned or has been forgotten. The interaction between and a term and its application/definition may also yield useful guidance:

If students write something (in green or yellow) that is incorrect, it is vital that they identify the mistakes and correct them in order to maximize the effectiveness of retrieval practice. They should, during the class review, cross out any incorrect information with the red pencil and, if applicable, write the corrected information in the same color. A history student who, for example, writes erroneous information about Abraham Lincoln might have corrections that look like this:

The student should then examine what the thought process was that led to those mistakes through source monitoring (e.g., “What was I thinking when I wrote this and where did that come from?”). When the incorrect information is based on confusing one concept with another, the student should elaborate the both the correct and incorrect information. For example, the student mixed up the assassins of Abraham Lincoln (Booth) with John F. Kennedy (Oswald). The student should write the correct information in one’s notes so that it is clear to the student that Booth killed Lincoln and Oswald killed Kennedy. If the incorrect information is inapplicable to anything in the unit, the student should make note of that as well. For example, the student should note that the vampire hunter reference is from a movie and not based in history. 

Occasionally, students may write something that is correct and potentially relevant but was not intended to be part of the review. Teachers should acknowledge (perhaps briefly) these instances, as retrieval of this information may strengthen its connections to other more relevant information. Students might write that Lincoln’s secretary of state was William H. Seward. This information might not be assessed on a test about Lincoln, but its successful retrieval likely reinforces the knowledge of Seward’s acquisition of Alaska from Russia in 1867, which may have relevance to other parts of the history curriculum.

This activity does come with a disclaimer and limitation. As a high school teacher and college adjunct who moonlights as an experimental psychologist, I know that the implications and suggestions for studying listed are speculative should seek validation by empirical research. Given the time needed to complete this activity (approximately 15-25 minutes depending on the nature of the material), its in-class use should be reserved for review of major topics (e.g., in a psychology class: parts of the brain, Erickson’s psychosocial stages, Pavlovian and operant conditioning terms, etc.). Nevertheless, this activity encourages metacognition, promotes retrieval practice, and gives direction to students about their review.

For what topics might this review be best suited?

Are typical study guides doing enough to encourage metacognition?

[1]It became quickly apparent, when I first did this activity, that yellow is not an ideal color as it is hard to read on white paper. For that reason, a darker color such as orange or purple might be used instead. The colors are actually unimportant so long as a student uses each consistently. The three colors described above are used given the name of the review.

[2]All of the suggestions could (and should) be used for all studied material regardless of one’s level of understanding. However, what is described might be the most ideal respective approach for a given color combination. 

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