I’m sure many of us teaching at the university level have had this conversation at least once per semester!
I also ordered a new book called “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” which draws more on cognitive psychology to reveal successful strategies for teaching and learning. Some good summer reading, hopefully! Here’s a Chronicle of Higher Ed article on this new book. It looks promising!
1. Find Out How the Student Has Been Studying. Possible questions include:
Did you read the assigned chapters before the test? Did you read them before you came to class, after, or just before the exam? How much time did you devote to studying for the test? Did you read these chapters once, or more than once? (This question provides a chance to review the old Law of Frequency, and to describe how repetition influences memory formation and recall.)
2. Check Attendance and Note Taking Practices. Assuming that the student attends class regularly, you might ask the following: Do you take good notes? Do you review your notes after class to correct obvious errors? Do you compare your notes with those of other students? Where do you sit in the classroom? You may also want to look at the quality of the student’s notes and suggest changes (e.g., leaving more space, use of topic headings, writing down of examples used by the instructor).
3. Suggest Healthy Behaviors. Ask how much sleep the student gets, how much they got the night before the exam, and if they are getting any exercise and eating properly. (This might provide an opportunity to review the effects of sleep on memory formation.)
4. Recommend Tutoring. If tutors are available, encourage their use. If not, ask if the student has tried studying with other students.
5. Discuss Recognition Versus Knowing. Describe the difference between going over material enough that one can “recognize” the material as very familiar and prematurely conclude that it is known and understood, and really knowing and understanding it. (You might even mention Ebbinghaus and the benefits of overlearning, or work on the “curse of knowledge” showing that students often think they know the material if the material is right there in front of them.)
6. Urge Self-Assessment. One easy strategy is to give your students access to an established and free study behavior measure (e.g., ASSIST) and have them use it to get a sense of what they are not doing (Entwistle, 2009). The ASSIST provides a profile of scores on strategies and alerts students to possible problems in their existing ways of studying (available at http://www.etl.tla.ed.ac.uk/publications.html).
7. Discuss Winning Strategies. Hattie (2009) synthesized research from over 800 meta-analyses relating to educational achievement. He then derived the effect sizes for different interventions. Intervening to improve study behaviors was a significant factor with an effect size of .59. This meta-analysis and other works on study techniques (Gurung, 2004, 2005) show that the following specific strategies are empirically proven to work and hence useful to pass on to students:
- Schedule daily studying and homework time
- Make lists of things to accomplish during studying
- Put off pleasurable events until work is completed
- Review the class textbook/assignments before going to class
- Create mnemonics and vivid mental images to aid learning
- Memorize the material through repetition
- Generate examples to apply the material
- Record information relating to study tasks (e.g., keeping a study log)
- Self-verbalize the steps to complete a given task
- Use chapter review questions to self test
- Review the items missed on the exam, including items guessed at
- Make an outline before writing a paper
- Check work before handing in an assignment
8. Advise Students on what NOT to do. Previous research suggests that students take some “dangerous detours”: study techniques that may not be beneficial involving more study time at the expense of other techniques (Gurung, 2004, p. 164). Sadly, such detours could represent behaviors used by academically weaker students. Whereas the academically stronger students may not take time on behaviors such as going over chapters right after a lecture in lieu of doing so right before an exam, the weaker students may go over the chapters at both times. In support of this point, Landrum, Turrisi, and Brandel (2006) found that A and B students tended to increase their frequency of studying as the semester progressed, but they decreased the actual time spent studying per study event (p. 681). (Another testimony to the benefits of distributed vs. massed practice.) Students who are doing poorly may try to improve by doing more of the unsuccessful types of studying they have been doing, rather than trying other techniques. Key behaviors students should avoid are:
- Spending too much time on key terms or summaries to the extent of paying less attention to other pedagogical aids (e.g., review questions)
- Highlighting too much text (i.e., not knowing what the important information really is), thus increasing study load
- Using chapter review questions (and their answers) as more content to study versus using them to test their own knowledge
- “Studying with a friend” where this does not involve testing each other, taking review questions, creating examples, or reviewing notes
- Listening to music, watching television, text messaging, or surfing the Internet while studying
9. Assess Your Own Students’ Study Behaviors. Correlate the behaviors with exam scores and identify what behaviors are associated with better scores. Share this with the students to help them modify their study behavior. For example the first author created a 35-item Study Behavior Checklist based on previous research and student interviews (Gurung et al., in press). The items assessed students’ organizational behaviors (e.g., writing down when exams, assignments, and quizzes are due, setting up a study schedule), applicationbehaviors (e.g., creating questions about the material), elaboration behaviors (e.g., paraphrasing the material, explaining it to another person), metacognitive behaviors (e.g., using the book and/or Web site for quizzes), andresource use behaviors (e.g., asking a fellow classmate to explain the material) on a scale ranging from 1 (Not at all like me) to 5 (Exactly like me). Higher exam scores were associated with:
- Attending class, r(114) = .23, p < .05
- Answering all questions on the study guide, r(114) = .23, p < .05.
- Using practice exams to study, r(114) = .24, p < .05.
- Ability to explain problems using the material, r(114) = .28, p < .01.
10. Do not expect a silver bullet. It is important to bear in mind that there are no strategies that work all of the time, for all students, in all classes. Different exams call for different strategies. It is possible that introductory psychology multiple choice exams require only basic study behaviors, whereas an upper-level essay exam will need different behaviors.
In general, instructors need to be cognizant of how much of the advice they give to students is empirically proven to work in an actual classroom rather than a controlled cognitive psychology laboratory study. Asking students to complete a study skill inventory after the first exam may provide instructors with a starting point to discussing study behaviors with students. Taking some class time to discuss the variety of study techniques,and then detailing what exactly is involved in each method, may be critical to helping students do better. We hope these suggestions prove helpful when the next student asks you how to study for your exams and that their performance improves as a result of your advice.