Reviewing in pairs helps 9781338054927_xlg-1

“Could you run that by me again?” As mature learners, we know that understanding is not a one-step process. Often, we need to revisit what we are learning to make sure we “have it.”

Therefore we return for a second look, to clear up any uncertainties and to mentally reconstruct the material so that it personally makes sense to us. Reflecting, clarifying, and paraphrasing are automatic responses during our learning.

In contrast, many students cling to the habit of taking only one trip through new material, whether they truly understand it or not.

They may become preoccupied with completing an assignment rather than pondering the meaning of a passage. As a result, their “trip” through the textbook becomes a race to get done. Homework may be accounted for, but these students close the book with only a vague notion of what they just read.

Teaching/Learning Activities

Classroom activities that encourage review and reflection help students to better understand and remember what they are learning. Teachers can enhance clarifying and paraphrasing skills through a variety of paired review activities.

Step 1: Begin by creating interactive settings for students to practice “summing up” what they have read or learned. Costa (2009) advocates the Paired Verbal Fluency activity. Students take turns reviewing with a partner what they learned from a reading, a video, a class presentation, or a discussion.

For example, students in a World History class have completed reading a textbook section on the ancient Greeks. Pair the students and have the partners determine which will be “Reviewer A” and “Reviewer B.” Next outline the ground rules for the activity, which consists of three phases.

During phase 1, “Reviewer A” begins by recounting something that he or she remembers or found interesting in the chapter. “Reviewer A” must talk steadily for 60 seconds while the partner listens. After 60 seconds, the teacher calls out, “Switch,” and the students exchange roles. But “Reviewer B” cannot repeat anything that was recalled by “Reviewer A.”

When “B” has talked for 60 seconds, the teacher calls, “Switch” again to start phase 2. This time “A” has 40 seconds to continue the review, once more with the stipulation that nothing stated by either partner can be repeated. Another switch and “B” gets a 40-second turn. The last phase follows the same pattern, with each reviewer getting 20 seconds to recap.

The Paired Verbal Fluency activity is a fast-paced way for students to summarize their learning. The “no-repeat” rule forces them to dig a little deeper into the information and mandates that the partners listen to each other during the review, rather than mentally rehearse what they might say when their turn comes up.

The time limits can be adjusted to fit the needs of the students, and when the activity has been completed, confusions or questions that surfaced during the review can be addressed. Allowing students access to their notes or textbook during the review is optional.

Step 2: As students become comfortable retelling what they learned, activities which engage them in paraphrasing and clarifying content can be planned. The Reflect/Reflect/Reflect activity (Costa) involves breaking the class into triads. The members of the triad take turns assuming the roles of Presenter, Reflector, and Observer.

In phase 1 of the strategy, the presenter is allotted about two minutes to cover some part of the material that was interesting, familiar, confusing, or perhaps difficult to learn. Next, the Reflector has the task of paraphrasing what was said. Finally, the Observer comments on how accurate the paraphrasing was and whether anything important was omitted.

Phase 2 starts with each student switching to a different role and proceeds as before. But this time, the Reflector has a larger responsibility: to paraphrase the Presenter’s remarks and in addition to clarify by asking questions of the Presenter. The Observer evaluates the paraphrasing and comments on whether things were cleared up by the questions.

During phase 3, students each assume a third role, with the Presenter continuing as before. The Reflector this time does three things: paraphrases, asks questions to clarify, and identifies any emotions that the Presenter might have exhibited (such as excitement, frustration, confusion, or disagreement). This step adds empathy with a fellow learner to the interaction. The Observer completes the activity as before, commenting on the paraphrasing, clarifying, and empathizing.

Step 3: A third paired review activity involves students approaching the material as if they were an expert explaining the new content to a novice. The expert must talk about the material so that a person not knowledgeable with the information can understand it. Unfamiliar concepts and vocabulary have to be “translated” so that they make sense to the novice.

The novice asks clarifying questions and then repeats what is understood about the content to the expert, who verifies that the novice has gotten it right and clears up any misunderstandings.

As students become more independent, they can practice this “expert” role with people not in the class. For example, a student studying chemistry might explain the day’s concepts to her mother each evening. Her challenge is to translate the technical language of chemistry into layman terms. If her mother can understand the material, the student knows that she has successfully paraphrased it.


Paired review activities help students internalize the importance of reflecting upon and personalizing their learning. Other advantages include:

  • Students are reminded that merely completing assignments is often not sufficient for learning new material.
  • Students are encouraged to use their classmates to help them clarify and remember new information.
  • These activities can also be used for eliciting student knowledge about a topic before introducing a new lesson.