At the end of an article that summarizes research on self-regulated learning, Bjork et al. (2013), noted for their research on the topic, discuss evidence-based answers to questions that students frequently ask about exams, studying, and learning. I like the idea of being a bit more thoughtful about our responses to these regularly asked student questions.
Students don’t ask quite that formally; the question is usually something more like, “What kind of test will it be?” or, as one student shouted to me as I walked across campus, “Dr. Weimer, is there anything I need to know for the test?” I assume he meant “about” the test. Basically, what students want to know is whether the questions are multiple choice, short answer, or essay and how many there will be. The researchers call the format question “insightful” because it implies that students will study differently if it’s one or the other. In fact, research on effective study strategies finds that any strategy that gets students actively participating with the content, such as explaining it in their own words or self-testing, moves them in the direction of right answers. Some research finds that identifying the type of exam questions increases students’ grades. Perhaps it does so because it alleviates some of the anxiety associated with exams.
What teachers should tell students is that they need to truly understand the material and be able to demonstrate that understanding from memory. This advice holds as long as the test does not contain questions that students can answer with content they have memorized but not understood. Sample test questions that require understanding or application can show students who memorize answers why that study strategy doesn’t work.
For lots of students, this is not a question of how much time they should spend studying but how much time they will have to spend. Moreover, it’s not a question commonly asked of teachers, the assumption (often correct) being that teachers will propose way too much time. Many teachers still recommend two hours out of class for every hour in class, and that although that applies in some courses, it’s not true for most. Students who earn respectable grades consistently report spending much less time than two hours for every class hour. Rather than asking teachers, students talk to other students, mostly asking whether the teacher’s tests are hard or easy. They get unreliable answers here as well.
The researchers make a valid point that should be part of the message from teachers: it’s both the amount of time students spend and what they do during that time. Frequent interruptions compromise the quality of study time, as do fixed mindset beliefs.
That’s another question student don’t ask teachers. Unfortunately, they know cramming works because they do it all time and get the grades they need. Before telling students not to cram, teachers should be sure test questions can’t be answered with memorized factoids. The researchers recommend asking students what cramming works for. “If . . . a student’s goal is to retain what they learn for a longer period of time . . . cramming is very ineffective compared to other techniques” (p. 437). Do teachers hold student accountable for what they should have learned in other courses? At the mention of a concept they should know, students frequently look confused, claim to have no memory of it, and assert that it wasn’t covered in any course they’ve taken. How often do we respond with a review? It’s a tough point to accept, but teachers own some of the responsibility when it comes to actions that perpetuate cramming.
Frequently after exams, there’s a line of students or a string of emails that make the same point. “I studied for hours and only got a C”; “I knew this material and still missed all sorts of questions.” The researchers explain that students overestimate their learning in several ways. Some students consistently misjudge their level of preparedness. They confuse familiarity with knowledge. When asked how they plan to study, students regularly announce they will to “go over” the material, “copy” their notes, and “look at” what they’ve highlighted in the text. These passive strategies make words, concepts, and problems recognizable, but knowing what information looks like does not equate with understanding. Here as well, teachers should opt for messages that demonstrate the difference. “We’ve talked about this concept. Chance are good it will show up on the exam. What do you have in your notes about it? Could you answer this question with what you’ve got in your notes?”
Students decide what and how much they will study, and nothing motivates studying quite as effectively as an exam. They have questions about preparing for tests which they ask us, each other, and themselves. Our actions and answers should help them make good decisions.
Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornel N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 417–444. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143823
Complementing the questions students ask us are the questions we ask students. See The Teaching Professor’s call for submissions on this topic here.