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 ...
It’s probably the question I’m most asked in workshops on learner-centered teaching. “What are some good places to start? My students aren’t used to learner-centered approaches.” Sometimes the questioner is honest enough to ...
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.
What follows are some instructional strategies and activities that help students improve their study skills. Most of them build on or are related to things you are probably already doing, and they are highly adaptable. Versions of them can be used in both face-to-face and online courses, and they can be transformed into course assignments that can be completed individually or in groups. Many are do-able even in the most content-dense courses.
Regular, on-going in-class review
Don’t underestimate what regular review can accomplish. Although most of us already spend time on content review, what’s different about these strategies is they get students doing the reviewing (as opposed to the teacher doing it for them). They model evidence-based exam preparation strategies—approaches that have been shown to improve exam performance. All we need to do is to use them regularly, thoughtfully, and with the goal of developing good study skills for exams.
Use real test questions—students pay attention to them. These might be questions you’ve used before or questions you might possibly use.
Display a question at the beginning of the session. “Here’s a test question I’ve asked about the material covered when we were last together.” Encourage students to test themselves. Let them talk to each other. Have them look in their notes to see if they have what they need to craft an answer to the question. Unanswered questions keep students engaged and attentive longer than those that are answered directly, especially if several possible answers are proposed.
Have students create a potential test question at the end of the period or online lesson. “This material is fair game for the exam. What might a test question on this material ask? How about jotting down some ideas?” Encourage them to look at their notes and then ask several students share their ideas. Identify those you think could become good exam questions. If you use one of their suggested questions on the test, that pretty much guarantees they’ll take this activity seriously. It’s also a great way to get students reviewing their notes, discovering what they do and don’t have in them. And there’s an added benefit: what students suggest as possible question gives you feedback as to what they think is important.
Regularly (as in at least once a session) ask or embed questions about previously covered material.
Resolutely refuse to answer the question. That’s exactly students want you to do.
Give them a hint. “We covered this when we were talking about X?” “Check your notes for October 20. You might find the answer there.”
Be patient. It takes time for students to retrieve what they’ve just learned and barely understand.
Still no response? Tell them, that’s the question you’ll start with tomorrow and if they don’t have an answer then, they’ll next see that question on the exam. Be sure to say all this with a smile on your face.
Get students doing short reviews. These reviews can occur at the start of class, during a lull when students need a change of pace, or as an effective way to wrap up a class. A few strategic prompts will get students working.
“Let’s all look at our notes from March 3. You’ve got two minutes to underline the three things in your notes that you’re going to need to review for the exam.” Ask several students what they’ve underlined and why. An activity like this can make students who don’t have notes for the day nervous and uncomfortable, which is precisely how they should feel.
“Take three minutes to review your notes from November 1. Do you have anything in your notes that doesn’t make sense to you now? Share what that is.” Encourage other students to respond to what’s not making sense now. “Help Shandra out. What do the rest of you have in your notes about this? Is there something in the text that helps clarify things?” Conclude by giving them another minute to write more in their notes if they need to.
Here’s a great strategy proposed by Annie Blazer. She assigns students (one per day) to open class with a 3-5 minute review of the material presented in the previous class session. In addition to getting students reviewing, this strategy gives students the opportunity to practice their presentation skills and helps them learn how to summarize. And finally, you can imagine the kind of careful note taking that occurs the day before a students is scheduled to present. [For more information see: Blazer, A. (2014). Student summaries of class sessions. Teaching Theology and Religion, 17 (4), 344. Or, see this post, May 20, 2015]
Mostly what’s required to increase the effectiveness of in-class reviews is changing how we think about exams and what they accomplish. They can do much more than generate grades. They get can students learning the content and with activities like these, they can influence how students learn that content.