students studying for finals

What Do Students Do When They Study?

An article in a recent issue of the International Journal of STEM Education has got me thinking about study habits and how little we know about how students study.

The article is open-access, and I encourage you to read it whether you teach in the STEM fields or not. But first, a synopsis: The research team used “a practice-based approach to focus on the actual study behaviors of 61 undergraduates at three research universities in the United States and Canada who were enrolled in biology, physics, earth science and mechanical engineering courses.” (p. 2) In small focus groups students responded to this prompt: “Please imagine for a moment how you typically study for this course—can you describe in as much detail as possible your study situation?” (p. 4) What these students reported is a good reason to read this article.

Another reason this research merits attention is the concern the researchers have with how we think about and research study behaviors. We tend to focus on parts of the study process—when students study, how long they study, what strategies they use when they study, and what strategies they should use. Hora and Oleson believe that studying is a collection of behaviors and thinking about them in isolation reduces the complex ways they interact. Their results support that belief. “Results indicate that studying is a multi-faceted process that is initiated by instructor or self-generated cues, followed by marshaling resources and managing distractions, and then implementing study behaviors that include selecting a social setting and specific strategies.” (p. 1)

As for the cohort consisting of students reporting on how they studied in STEM courses, the researchers note, “We are not suggesting that this account of studying is generalizable to all students but is a heuristic device for thinking about studying in a more multi-dimensional manner than is common at the present time.” (p. 15) So, what your students would say about how they study may well be different, but that’s another reason this is such a good article. As you make your way through it, you are constantly considering what you do and don’t know about how your students study.

Hora, M. T. and Oleson, A. K. (2017). Examining study habits in undergraduate STEM courses from a situative perspective. International Journal of STEM Education, 4 (1), 19 pages.

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Teaching large classes.

A Quiz That Promotes Discussion and Active Learning in Large Classes

Educational research is full of studies that show today’s students learn more in an active-learning environment than in a traditional lecture. And as more teachers move toward introductory classes that feature active-learning environments, test performance is improving, as is interest in these classes. The challenge for teachers is finding and developing those effective active-learning strategies. Here’s a take-home quiz activity that I’ve adapted and am using to get students interested in my course content.

I teach a large, non-major chemistry course. I try to include topics such as pollution sources, alternative fuels, nutrition videos, and hometown water supplies that are relevant to students in different majors. I give a five-question quiz assignment several days before the topic comes up in class and then use it to facilitate class discussion. I want students thinking and applying course content. The first thing I ask for is a link to a recent article or video of interest to the student within the designated topic area (e.g., Find a recent article that describes an alternative energy source). Question two asks for a general understanding or definition (e.g., Is this energy source renewable or nonrenewable? Explain.). Next are questions that encourage students to interpret what they’ve read and assess its reliability (e.g., How does this energy source compare to oil and coal? Or how will this energy source help meet our current and future energy needs?). The quiz wraps up with a question that asks for the student’s opinion on the topic (e.g., Burning garbage to produce electricity is an alternative fuel—would you be happy to see your town adopt this method? Explain.).

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group exams

Group Exams and Quizzes: Design Options to Consider

Although still not at all that widely used, there’s long-standing interest in letting students work together on quizzes or exams. Upon first hearing about the approach, teachers’ initial response is almost always negative. Here are the most common objections.

  • Grades are measures of individual mastery of material. With a group exam or quiz, some students may get a better grade than they’ve earned. Group grades do not measure individual learning.
  • A group can settle on wrong answers and thereby lower the score of the single bright student in the group who knows the right answer.
  • Group exams and quizzes make it too easy for students. They don’t have to think for themselves but can rely on others in the group to do the thinking for them.
  • It’s cheating. Students are getting answers they don’t know from other students. They’re consulting another source rather than putting in the work and developing their own knowledge.
  • Certifying exams (various professional exams such as those in nursing, accounting, the MCAT and GRE, for example) are not group exams. Group quizzes and exams do not prepare students for these all-important assessments.

On the other hand, those who do allow group collaboration on exams and quizzes may respond to the objections with a corresponding set of set of advantages associated with their use.

  • Group exams and quizzes reduce test anxiety. Pretty much across the board, students report that anticipating and participating in group exams and quizzes makes them feel less anxious. And for students with exam anxiety, that can be a significant benefit.
  • Collaborative quizzes and exams show students that they can learn from each other. Many students arrive in courses believing the only person they can learn from is the teacher. But as they talk about test questions, share answer justifications, discuss what content the answer requires, they get to experience what it’s like to learn from peers.
  • Group quizzes and exams provide immediate feedback. Students don’t have to wait to get the exam back. They get a good indication from those in the group why the answer is or is not correct.
  • Working together on test questions teaches students how to identify credible arguments and sources. Given the opportunity to change answers based on what someone else says directly confronts students with the tough issues of who to believe and when to trust their own judgment.
  • Collaborative quizzes and exams model how problem solving in professional contexts usually occurs. Professionals collaborate, they have access to resources, they can contact experts, they argue options, and evaluate possible answers. Collaborative testing gives students the opportunity to see how and why that results in better decision making.
  • Group quizzes and exams can improve exam scores and sometimes, but not always, content retention. The improvement in scores is an expected outcome of collaboration, but the improvement is also present when students collaborate on exam questions and then answer questions that deal with the same content on a subsequent exam taken individually. Effects of collaboration on retention are mixed. See the following references listed at the end of this article for examples: Cortright, Collins, Rodenbaugh and DiCarlo, (2002), Gilley and Clarkson (2014), Leight, Sunders, Calkins and Withers (2012), Lust and Conklin (2003) and Woody, Woody and Bromley (2008).

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college student studying

Ten Study Strategies for Students and Their Teachers

Here’s one of those articles that really shouldn’t be missed, particularly for those with interest in making teaching and learning more evidence-based. Current thinking about evidence-based teaching and learning tends to be more generic than specific. Use any active learning strategy intermittently or even regularly, and some would call the teaching evidence-based. That’s a superficial understanding of what it means to use practices that have been proven to promote learning. This article leads to a deeper level of understanding.

It’s a review of mostly cognitive psychology research that explores 10 learning techniques. The cognitive psychologist authors provide the background. “Psychologists have been developing and evaluating the efficacy of techniques for study and instruction for more than 100 years. Nevertheless, some effective techniques are underutilized—many teachers do not learn about them, and hence many students do not use them, despite evidence suggesting that the techniques could benefit student achievement and with little added effort. Also, some learning techniques that are popular and often used by students are relatively ineffective.” (p. 5)

Here are brief descriptions of the 10 learning strategies reviewed in the article.

  • Elaborative interrogation—generating an explanation for why some fact or concept is true
  • Self-explanation—explaining how new information is related to what is already known, or explaining steps taken during problem solving
  • Summarization—writing summaries of text content to expedite learning the material
  • Highlighting/underlining—marking potentially important text passages while reading
  • Keyword mnemonic—using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
  • Imagery for text—attempting to form mental images of text material while reading or listening
  • Rereading—reading text material again after having read it initially
  • Practice testing—self-testing or taking practice tests on the material to be learned
  • Distributed practice—scheduling practice so that it spreads study activities over time
  • Interleaved practice—mixing different kinds of problems or materials within a single study session

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Female college student studying

Student-Led Advice on How to Study

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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Students at university lecture raise hands to ask questions

Conducting In-Class Reviews Effectively

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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erasing test answers

Writing Better Multiple-Choice Questions

Eleven years ago, I discovered a life-changing pedagogy called team-based learning. It let me do things in large classrooms that I didn't think was possible. I found that the key to successful team-based learning was writing really good multiple-choice questions. I would like to look at the multiple-choice format overall, including some of the vocabulary we use when looking at the literature on writing multiple-choice questions.

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