May 5th, 2011

Questions Around Students’ Study Habits, and What Constitutes Studying


I had breakfast with my colleague and friend Larry yesterday. We pretty much cover the higher education waterfront during these morning sessions. Among the many topics covered yesterday was the matter of how much time students spend studying, or as most faculty are more likely to note, how much time they don’t spending trying to master course content. In support of the lack of attention to studying that many of us see in our classes is all sorts of survey data (from the well-known NSSE surveys to findings reported in the new and much talked about book, Academically Adrift). Depending on the survey, something close to 80% of students are reporting that they spend less than 20 hours a week studying.

Larry explained that he worked at a college that routinely got heat from the administration because its students reported spending less time studying than students at other colleges. “When we sat down with students and ask them how they decided on their answers to that question, they raised all sorts of relevant points. They studied different amounts, depending on the week. Most said they didn’t keep track of their time that closely so they just made a guess.”

From there we launched into a discussion of what the term “studying” means and what counts as studying. Is it only work you do on your own? No, you can study with others but what if it’s just a short tweet about how you did a particular homework problem? What about when the group studying starts discussing how hard or easy the exam will be? Does that count as study time? When you work alone, is recopying your notes (something a lot of students report they do) studying or simply transcribing? Is it studying if you don’t end up understanding the material or being able to solve problem? The students Larry interviewed suggested listing items normally considered studying: reading assignments, writing papers, preparing presentations, doing research, working on group projects, completing homework, or studying for examinations or quizzes.

An itemized list helps but it still doesn’t get at another question relevant to time spent studying. I used to get after my students who would tell me they planned to prepare for the exam by “going over” their notes or the reading. “No, not a good idea,” I would say. “You need to ‘get into’ them. Going over something implies a quick review, no real analysis, no questioning, no exploring whether or not you really understand whatever it is you are going over. Basically you’re just looking at stuff with your eyes and hoping that what you see makes an impression on your brain.”

Disappointed with grades, students often will say, “But I studied five hours for this exam,” as if putting in the time was all that mattered. Examples like these raise the question of what it is students do when they study and how that relates to time spent studying. Does quality study time trump quantity study time?

Does time spent thinking about what you’ve been studying count? When people ask me how much I work, I never know exactly how to answer. I spend about five or six hours a day at my desk, but some of my most important insights occur when my dog Woodie and I are walking in the woods and I’m thinking about whatever I’ve been reading or writing … ditto for time in the shower, time behind the vacuum cleaner and time on the weekend with a glass of wine. What about when students subsequently reflect on something the teacher said or how another student solved a problem or what happened in their group?

In no way do Larry and I think students are spending enough time engaged with course content, but we do agree that studying is a pretty vague term, one likely defined differently by every student you ask. We don’t think asking students to report the time they spend studying yields very accurate or useful information. On the other hand, asking students questions about what they do when they study, that’s a conversation worth having. They need know what they do, hear how others do it differently and reflect on the amount practice required to learn anything.