Midterm Review Game: Trivial Pursuit

As midterms approach, its a good time to think about how we help our students prepare for their exams.  Approaches vary widely: some professors design study guides and hold extra review sessions; others are more of the ‘cut the apron strings’ mode and leave students to study completely on their own.  I’m agnostic toward the method, as long as the intention behind it is sound; as with most things in teaching, the tool (say lecture, or simulations, or using a study guide) should be chosen because its the best fit for a specific task and a specific group of students, not because we are in love with the tool itself.

In my introductory courses in international relations and American politics (the only times I employ a midterm), I am a fan of the review game. My exams rarely focus on definition of terms, so I find a traditional study guide completely counterproductive: students focus on learning a list of terms, rather than thinking about application, analysis, or synthesis.  A review game like Trivial Pursuit can put the onus of preparation on the students themselves (where it belongs!), and forces them to think about questions, rather than just answers.  It also makes the process of review way more fun than a standard review session. This works great for a final exam review, too–and if you do it twice, you may find that the students produce even better questions the second time around.

Here’s a how to:

  • Equipment needed: any version of trivial pursuit–just the board, die, and game pieces. A typical board is pictured above
  • Two weeks before the exam, divide the material on the exam into 5 or 6 categories.  For my intro IR class, these are: conceptual foundations (levels of analysis, states v. nations, sovereignty, etc); historical context of IR; Realism and Power Politics; Idealism and Neo-Liberalism; Constructivism and other ISMS (Marxism, Feminism, etc); and Current Issues (which covers class discussions and assignments).  For American politics, these are usually Popular Culture and Citizenship; The founding and the Constitution; federalism; civil liberties; civil rights; and current issues.  Your categories will certainly differ, and can always include a ‘wild card’ option.  The game would work just as well for comparative politics or any other course.
  • Pass out or post a one page description of the review game that also serves as a ‘midterm reminder’ guide.  Mine usually just notes what the exam will cover, the format of the exam, some brief tips on how to study, a few sample questions, and info about the review game.  Contact me if you’d like to get a copy of mine as a guide.
  • Assign students to each category (randomly is best), and tell them they are each responsible for producing a certain of questions (with answers) on that category.  Depending on the number of students, I’ll ask for between 5-10 questions.  You can decide whether a certain number have to be multiple choice (mine tend to go for short answer).  They also have to provide the answer.  Note down who is assigned to what category.
  • The questions are their ticket to the review.  Students who do not turn in questions cannot participate in the review. Added incentives can include extra credit for the winning team, and I will tell them that particularly good questions may show up on the exam itself (i always try to use at least one, sometimes with some minor edits).
  • Questions can be submitted in a variety of ways.  The easiest for the instructor is to have students write them on index cards–category at the top, question on one side, answer on the other.  They can bring them in the day of the review.  I usually have them submit them online a day or two early so I can organize the questions, and if I’m feeling charitable, post them for everyone to see after the review.  It is VERY important that you know who submitted which questions.
  • On the day of the review or sometime before, divide the students into two (or more if you have a large class; 10 people per team is a good maximum) teams making sure that there is someone from each category on each team.  Then make sure that you organize the questions (whether on note cards or electronic) so that teams do not get asked the questions they wrote.  This is really important, otherwise people just answer the questions they wrote without anyone having to think about the question.  I like to assign teams in advance, and make adjustments last minute if someone doesn’t show up.
  • Bring additional questions. Many of the questions the students write will overlap, and so its great to have some of your own to use in a crunch.  This is where those textbook test banks come in really handy.
  • Ask each team to choose a die roller and a spokesperson.  This minimizes down time during the review, and makes clear who is communicating the ‘final answer’ to the instructor, who asks all the questions.
  • Arrange the seats in the classroom around a central table so everyone can see the game board.
  • Assign each category a color. Put it on the board so everyone can see.
  • The basic rules of trivial pursuit apply.  Students roll the die and move their pieces, and answer questions corresponding to the color they land on.  Correct answers allow them to go again; incorrect answers give the next team a turn. The large spaces at the end of the spokes of the wheel earn correct answers a little colored wedge; the goal of the game is to collect one wedge of each color and then answer a question correctly after moving to the center of the board.  The only additional rule I use is that after either three correct answers or earning a wedge, the next team gets to go.  Otherwise you can have a team go on a spree, which can lead to students on other teams checking out of the game.

That’s it!  It involves very little preparation on the part of the professor, and instead puts the burden on the students, which is great for us but also for them, as the process of writing questions and then working together to answer them can really help them retain information.  I’ve seen the average on the midterm improve since using this review game, although the usual limits on a such a claim apply since I do not have pretests or true control groups.

Try it out, and as always, report back here on how it goes.

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