I recently reread an old post I wrote way back in 2011. The issue is still salient—how students intend to study for exams and how they actually do. Most students have good intentions regarding exam preparation. If asked, they will tell you they plan to reread the text (a few may be honest enough to admit they’ll be reading it for the first time) and they’ll spend time with their notes, rereading or maybe recopying them. Others may review homework problems, work on additional problems, and devote considerable time going over that old test you’ve made available. All of them will tell you they’ll start studying several days before the scheduled exam and they uniformly believe the more they study the better.
Some will do what they intend, but most of them will not. Life is busy, distractions are many, and the serious studying will happen in the hours just before the test. Is there any way we can help students improve how they prepare for exams? In that old blog post I recommended study game plans. I did that based on my experience using them in a first-year seminar course. I beefed up the assignment when I discovered that few of these beginning students had never developed a study game plan. I now think that it might be a worthwhile activity in lots of other courses, too.
A good study game plan focuses on the details—specificity counts more than length. There’s a timeline which gets laid out after some thoughtful analysis of just how much study time is needed. A quick survey of those who’ve done well on an exam might bring some realism to the estimates of others in the class. The study time question also needs to be considered after an honest assessment of how much time the student can truly devote to studying.
Is there any way to convince students of what the research consistently shows—regular, ongoing, short-interval study sessions result in better learning than long, single sessions? Students cram because it works. They’ve taken lots of exams and gotten decent (sometimes even high) scores after a few hours spent memorizing answers. If exams didn’t contain questions that could be answered by regurgitating material that would likely influence study patterns. Rather than just telling, sometimes it works to challenge students to try something different and see how it works for them.
Then there’s the issue of what students plan to do during those study intervals. Their generic ideas about “going over” and re-reading aren’t what researchers recommend. Could you provide them a list of study strategies and have them identify more specific approaches? There is a list in the reference (p. 89) that shows the percentages of students in a study who used each strategy and how useful they found the strategy. The strategies students report using are the ones they rate as being most valuable. Most of those rely heavily on instructor provided information. They aren’t the strategies that require motivation and self-direction.
If you teach beginning students or a course where a significant number of students aren’t doing well on the exams, consider giving an assignment (or extra credit) that has students preparing a post-exam evaluation of their study game plan. Grading the plans for their correctness and propriety isn’t all that important. What you really want are students confronting how they prepared with how they performed and how they might need to prepare differently next time. When students get a low exam score and you ask what they intend to do, the most frequent answer is more of what they’re currently doing. In some cases, that’s a good answer. They need to show up regularly for class, take better notes, and do the problems or assigned reading—chances are that will help. But most students need to discover those approaches that research ties to performance and learning. As I written so many times, you can tell them what they should do, but they’re much more likely to be convinced if they make the discoveries about study strategies for themselves. I’m thinking a study game plan might be a vehicle that could provide those insights.
Reference: Andaya, G., Hrabak, V., Reyes, S., Diaz, R. and McDonald, K. (2017). Examining the effectiveness of a postexam review activity to promote self-regulation in introductory biology students. Journal of College Science Teaching, 46 (4), 84-92.
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