Female college student studying April 6

Student-Led Advice on How to Study

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Most of the advice students hear on how to study comes from teachers. We offer it verbally in class before and after exams, in online communications, and on the syllabus. We talk about study strategies during office hours, especially when we meet with students who aren’t doing well in the course. The problem is students don’t always follow our wise advice.

I was once observing a physics class and, at the end of the session, the teacher reminded students that there was a test next week. Students went about packing up and preparing to leave, but then he said he had a handout with some advice on how to study for the exam. As he began distributing it, the packing up stopped. Book bags were put down; students began reading the handout.

When a copy of the handout came to me, I saw why students were so interested. The handout contained study recommendations from students who had taken the class previously. They were identified by name and beside their name was the grade they’d received in the class (not something to be done without student permission, which this professor did get).

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group study session April 1

Study Guides and Study Groups

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Most college faculty are terribly well-intentioned. We care about student success. The material in our courses is important; we want students to learn it. And so, we go out of our way, bend over backwards, and give students everything they need to do well in the course. If it looks like our students don’t know what or how to study for the exam, we respond with carefully prepared, detailed study guides and long lists of study questions for every chapter.

But here’s the question: Who stands to benefit the most from the preparation of study guide material? The teacher who knows the material and knows how to make a good study guide? Or students who must interact with the material in order to make a useful guide and who need to learn how to organize content in ways that expedite learning?

We’d serve our students better by contributing to the process, rather than doing the work they should be doing. We can prepare a set of guidelines that delineate the features of useful study guides and let them pull it all together. We can facilitate an in-class or online discussion during which students identify the features they’d find most helpful. We can share some good and not-so-good examples of study guide material.

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Students at university lecture raise hands to ask questions March 5

Conducting In-Class Reviews Effectively

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Good study skills are the key to successful performance on exams in college, and good study skills are what many of today’s college students don’t have. We can spend time pontificating about who bears the responsibility for these absent skills. We can philosophize about who should be going to college. Or our time can be spent helping students become better learners thereby upping their chances of success in our courses, in college and in life.

Exams do manage to motivate most students. They take them seriously. They study for them. That still doesn’t always improve their performance on them. However, there are activities that do improve exam performance and those activities can be modeled and demonstrated by teachers within the course.

I can hear the objections. But I already have so much content to cover. I don’t have time to teach study skills. And shouldn’t students know how to study by the time they get to college?

Fortunately, a lot of these activities don’t require huge time investments. They can be embedded in ongoing course activities, which is the most effective place anyway. One of the tough lessons learned from the efforts to remediate learning deficiencies has been that learning skills are best taught in the context of a discipline-based course. They make sense there and course work provides authentic practice opportunities.

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February 5

30 Tips for Writing Good Multiple-Choice Questions

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Multiple-choice tests don’t get much respect. Maybe it’s because they’re associated with memorization, old-fashioned standardized tests, and other situations in which the answer is likely to be “C.”

Yet when properly designed, multiple-choice tests can be a vital addition to your testing tool box. Outlined here are 30 tips for writing good multiple-choice questions.

All the suggestions that follow stem from two basic precepts:

  • Remove all barriers that will keep a knowledgeable student from getting the item right.
  • Remove all clues that will help a less-than-knowledgeable student get the item right.

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students studying in the library December 7, 2016

A Memo to Students about Studying for Finals

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To: My Students
From: Your Professor
Re: Studying for Finals

The end of the semester is rarely pretty. You’re tired; I’m tired. You’ve got a zillion things to get done—ditto for me. You’ve also got grades hanging in the balance to be decided by how you perform on the final exam. The pressure is on, and it’s not just this course. It’s all of them.


taking test deep in thought April 27, 2016

Test Anxiety: Causes and Remedies

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There hasn’t been a lot written recently about test anxiety, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer an issue for a significant number of students. Those of us who don’t suffer from test anxiety—and I’m betting that’s most faculty—can find it hard to be sympathetic. Life is full of tests, and students need to get over it. Besides, if students have studied and prepared, there’s no reason for them to feel excessively anxious about a test.


March 18, 2015

Using Cumulative Exams to Help Students Revisit, Review, and Retain Course Content

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The evidence that students retain content longer and can apply it better when exams and finals are cumulative is compelling. When I pointed to the evidence in a recent workshop, a faculty member responded, “But I can’t use cumulative exams. My students would revolt.” Students don’t like cumulative exams for the very reason we should be using them: they force regular, repeated encounters with the content. And it’s those multiple interactions with the material that move learning from memorization to understanding.


January 23, 2015

It’s Not Too Early to Begin Preparing Students for Cumulative Finals

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There are a couple of reasons why students don’t like comprehensive finals. First, they’re more work. Rather than four weeks’ worth of material to know and understand, there’s a semester or term’s worth of content to deal with. However, the research highlighted in an article in this issue of the newsletter and more like it strongly supports that continued interaction with the content increases the chances that it will be remembered and can be used subsequently. Students also don’t like comprehensive exams because most of them don’t use good cross-course study strategies. They wait until finals week and then they start reviewing. Here are some ways teachers can help students develop and use study strategies that make preparing for and doing well on comprehensive finals easier.


May 10, 2013

Exams: Maximizing Their Learning Potential

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We give students exams for two reasons: First, we have a professional responsibility to verify their mastery of the material. Second, we give exams because they promote learning. Unfortunately, too often the first reason overshadows the second. We tend to take learning outcomes for granted. We assume the learning happens, almost automatically, provided the student studies. But what if we considered how, as designers of exam experiences, we might maximize their inherent potential? Would any of these possibilities make for more and better learning from the exams your students take?