January 14, 2010

The Study Strategies that Work in Your Field

By: in Faculty Development, Teaching Professor Blog

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There’s a piece coming out in the February issue of the newsletter that highlights content from an article written by a political scientist who teaches quantitative content to math averse students. It’s a very pratical piece but also a great model—of pedagogical scholarship and of something we should all consider doing.

The author’s basic premise is pretty simple: students are math-phobic because they’ve never been taught how to learn math. They try to apply study strategies that work successfully in other courses, but when those strategies don’t work in math courses, the students don’t question the strategies. Instead, they decide that math is hard and they can’t learn it. The article identifies five approaches that don’t work when you’re trying to learn something mathematical. The piece in the newsletter will fill you in on those strategies.

But the article has got me thinking that what this teacher has done would be such a useful exercise for all of us (whether or not it ends up being a publishable article). What approaches do students use that aren’t effective in your field? Flashcards … my students loved flashcards, which work best in foreign language courses and maybe if you need to memorize definitions, but they are worthless when an exam requires the application of content. After identifying those strategies that don’t work, it is of course necessary to identify those that do, especially noting those that are unique to the kind of content we teach. The more specific we can be here the better. It’s not helpful enough to say that students need to practice. What kind of practice? For how long? And what do they do when they are practicing and make a mistake?

Obviously, this kind of information can benefit students greatly. The trick is persuading them to abandon old strategies that don’t work in favor of new ones that do. It seems like that should be an easy sell, but many times it isn’t. The strategies students use do work, in some courses and with some kinds of content, but students need to learn that learning is a highly complex phenomenon. Given all the different kinds of things college requires them to learn, they need a repertoire of strategies, and they need to be assessing the effectiveness of those strategies regularly.

Identifying what does and doesn’t help students learn our content benefits us as well. I’m not sure we’ve thought all that deeply about learning our content. For most of us it was learning that came easily. But if we aspire to help students for whom learning our content doesn’t come easily, then we need to know what strategies do and don’t generally work.

Reference: Reference: Buchler, J. (2009). Teaching quantitative methodology to the math averse. PS, Poltical Science and Politics, 43 (3), 527-530.

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