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Category: Study Strategies

What do students do when they study
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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.

Questions for group discussion or personal reflection

“Discussions regarding the state of undergraduate education in the early twenty-first century often focus on the role of the instructor and their pedagogical acumen in the classroom. . . . While instructors certainly play an important role in facilitating student learning by crafting experiences that engage students. . .researchers have long questioned whether enough attention has been placed on the other actor involved in the learning enterprise—the student. . . .the student as an agent actively engaged in his or her own learning and overall experience in college is a central, if not primary, part of the teaching and learning equation that is too often overlooked.” (p. 2) Do you agree or disagree with the assertion that our focus is too much on teaching and not enough on the student? Another author, cited in this study, asks this question: “How can we best support student success if we do not understand how they study?” Is that a fair question? How would you respond to it? How much do you know about how your students study?  
Widely referenced research from 2009 [Karpicke, et al] and cited in this study “found that the preferred study strategy of 84% of the surveyed undergraduates was re-reading textbooks and lecture notes. A study [Dunlosky, et al] examining the utility of 10 learning techniques in the empirical literature found that habits such as these [were] considered low utility in regard [to] their impact on student learning, . . .” (p. 3) References: Karpicke, J., Butler, A., and Roediger, H., III (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practice retrieval practice when they student on their own? Memory, 17 (4), 471-479. Dunloskly, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M., and Willingham, D. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14 (1), 4-58.  
Highlighted in the January 2016 issue of the Teaching Professor. Reprint available here. What percentage of your students would you guess are relying on these strategies? Are these strategies that teachers regularly recommend? Are they strategies that worked for us when we were students? Do you think the strategies aren’t working for students because of how they re-read course materials? What do students mean when they tell you that to prepare for the exam they will “go over” their notes and previous tests?  
“. . .respondents [in this study] had differing notions of what activities constituted ‘studying'. For some it meant any exposure to course material such as attending a class, whereas for others, studying implied completing assigned tasks. In yet other cases studying referred to activities that were not assigned and took place outside of class. As one student said, “I see studying more as something I do separate from any assigned material.” (p. 6) Are these different orientations to studying a function of this student cohort or do students across the board define “studying” differently? How do teachers typically define studying? How often do we share and discuss our definitions with students? Does the content have implications for how it should be studied? If so, what would be some examples?  
“. . .40 students [out of the 61] reported that the instructor often provided cues regarding when and what they should study. The most important cue for students tended to be the announcement of an upcoming assessment, thus initiating the process of studying. For some, an impending assessment was the only reason for studying. . . . Fewer (four) participants also discussed another cue for studying, that of recognizing that they were not sufficiently prepared or familiar with the course material.” (p. 6) Is there a problem with students depending too heavily on instructor cues as to when and what to study? If so, what is it? What if the instructor doesn’t give cues and in their absence, students stop studying, does that raise some ethical concerns? Or, should students learn the hard way— when and what they need to study is something they need to figure out? Why don’t more students confront content they don’t understand or only sort of understand? Is it a confidence issue? Are they convinced they won’t be able to figure it out for themselves?  
In reporting the approaches to studying these students used, the researchers write that the participants regularly described them “using imprecise or idiosyncratic terminology such that it was often impossible to align them with those discussed in the literature. . .” (p.8) For example, when students reported that they read the textbook, “often [they] did not specify if they were re-reading, reading it for the first time, or if they were skimming.” (p. 8) Do most students think more generically than specifically about studying? Are faculty too focused on the fact students don’t study or don’t study enough? Should we be more concerned about what students are doing when they study?  
“Studying is not simply about using strategies such as re-reading text or doing practice problems but is a process that involves cues about when to study, the timing of their actual study sessions, which resources to utilize, where to study and which strategies to employ. How these stages unfold in practice are also shaped by a variety of factors such as student’s personal life, the course material, and how instructors structure courses and make learning resources available.” (p. 14) They continue that this conclusion does not diminish the importance of “high-impact study strategies” [those shown by research to positively affect learning] but instead points to the various steps students take to get to the place where they sit down and actually use one of those strategies. Does this broader conception of studying resonate with you? If so, what implications does it have for have for how we teach?     Additional Premium resources on study habits: