July 14th, 2011

Study Game Plans: Do Students Know What and How to Study?


“Few teachers effectively prepare students to learn on their own. Students are seldom given choices regarding academic tasks to pursue, methods for carrying out complex assignments or study partners. Few teachers encourage students to establish specific goals for their academic work or teach explicit study strategies. Also, students are rarely asked to self-evaluate their work or estimate their competence on new tasks.” (p. 69)

I have that quote underlined and starred, and I mark it up more every time I revisit this article. I know I’ve included it in a Teaching Professor article and maybe even a blog post. It appears in a wonderfully succinct and clear article on self-regulated learning by Barry Zimmerman, the researcher most often associated with work in this area.

Upon rereading it this time, an activity used in my first-year seminar course came to mind. I had students develop a game plan for an upcoming exam. To develop their game plan they responded to a series of prompts, including: what study strategies will you use to prepare for the exam? List the content you are expect you will need to know for the exam. Develop a timeline indicating when and what you will study. What’s your best guess as to your grade on the exam? We both know what you grade want—the question is what do you truly expect you will get?

Students submitted their game plans, I checked them in as having been completed and then promptly returned them so students could use them. After returning the exam, I had students review their study game plan commenting on whether or not they’d followed it, if study strategies they’d used had appropriately prepared them, and how they might need to revise their study plan for the next exam.

I was always a bit taken back by the number of students who indicated this was the first time they’d ever developed a study game plan for an exam. I relied on the athletic metaphor to drive home the value of doing so. “Would you go into a big game without having thought about the opponent and the best way to play against them? Wouldn’t you devise some sort of game plan for practice and for the game itself?”

Knowing what and how to study
I was also routinely surprised by how much students proposed to study and then how little they actually did. Was the time-intensive plan something created to impress me or was that how much time they really believed they needed to study? Points earned for this small assignment were not based on the quality of the study plan or propriety of study strategies selected. As for the grade they expected to earn, generally only about 10% were within three points of their actual score. The vast majority of students widely over estimated their grade.

After reviewing their plans, most students readily conceded they would have done much better had they followed the plan they’d devised. They were less insightful about the study strategies they had used. Students who performed poorly—whose strategies had not prepared them for the exam—didn’t question their choices. Instead they said they needed to do more of what they did. That wasn’t always a bad answer—reviewing notes from class more and spending more time studying the text would improve the scores of most. But if making flashcards didn’t help with the vocabulary, is making more flashcards the best option? What I discovered subsequently in conversations with students was that some couldn’t change study strategies because they weren’t aware of other options.

I wish I had students do more assignments like this. I think it’s an example of what Zimmerman is proposing teachers need to do if they want their students to become self-regulated learners. The fact that for so many of my students it was the first time to develop a study plan, the first time to record the strategies they planned to use, the first time to assess their effectiveness and the first time having to explain grade over estimations shows the value of a fairly simple assignment that encourages critical reflection and leads to some important insights.

Reference: Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory Into Practice, 41 (2), 64-70.