There’s plenty of good research on study strategies that promote learning. It’s also well-documented that students don’t always use them. As most of us are well aware, procrastination gets in the way of learning. Cramming ends up being mostly a shoveling exercise—digging up details and dropping them into short term-memory. But there’s also evidence that students don’t know that some strategies do more for learning than others. And guess what? Neither do some faculty.
HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
Maybe we should be making a stronger pitch for student-led study groups. There’s all sorts of research documenting how students can learn from each other. But, as regularly noted here and elsewhere, that learning doesn’t happen automatically, and some of us worry that it’s not likely to occur in a study group where there’s no supervision and distractions abound. Recent findings should encourage us to give study groups a second look.
When an exam approaches, virtually all students agree they need to study and most will, albeit with varying intensity. Most will study the same way they always have—using the strategies they think work. The question students won’t ask is: How should I study for this exam? They don’t recognize that what they need to learn can and should be studied in different ways.
Faculty often tell students to study two hours for every credit hour. Where and when did this rule of thumb originate? I’ve been unable to track down its genesis. I suspect it started around 1909, when the Carnegie Unit (CU) was accepted as the standard measure of class time. [See Heffernan (1973) and Shedd (2003) for thorough histories of the credit hour.] The U.S. Department of Education defines the credit hour as “One hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out of class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester…” The expectation was the norm when I was in college in the 1980s and more seasoned professors indicate it was expected in the 1970s too.
For 10 years, I’ve been teaching study skills to college students, both individually and in the classroom. The vantage from my office offers me a clear view of students devouring information during tutoring appointments and focusing intently on the strategies shared during study skills counseling sessions. The effort and time they pour into comprehending their course material is irrefutable. However, when I ask students what they know about the lecture’s content before arriving at class, the answer is almost always the same: “Nothing.”
Interleaving is not a well-known term among those who teach, and it’s not a moniker whose meaning can be surmised, but it’s a well-researched study strategy with positive effects on learning. Interleaving involves incorporating material from multiple class presentations, assigned readings, or problems in a single study session. It’s related to distributed practice—studying more often for shorter intervals (i.e., not cramming). But it is not the same thing. Typically, when students study and when teachers review, they go over what was most recently covered, or they deal with one kind of problem at a time.
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.
I’m a strong believer in the benefits of students studying together, even though students don’t always understand or even experience the benefits. Oftentimes the potential gains of group study sessions are compromised by student behaviors. Students will saunter into study sessions, mostly not on time, sit around, check their phones, and socialize. When they finally start reviewing their notes, the text, or the homework problems, it’s all pretty superficial. There are very few questions, explanations, or confessions of confusion. The most intense conversation takes place over what they’ve heard from others about the exam and their hopes that it will be easy.
Multiple-choice questions are not the pariah of all test questions. They can make students think and measure their mastery of material. But they can also do little more than measure mastery of memorization. Memorizing is usually an easier option than thinking and truly understanding.