Many faculty (probably most who read this column) willingly do a great many things to help students learn. For example, we know that our courses are jammed with content and that it’s hard for a lot of students to figure out what they need to learn for the exam. We try to help by preparing study guides. They may outline concepts, define key terms, summarize salient points, provide study questions, highlight relevant textual material, include sample test questions, or offer helpful study hints. Students quickly recognize that they’re a great resource and routinely request them with comments about how much they help.
The authors of a recent study observe, “Given how common these requests are, there is surprisingly little research on students’ perceptions of, or benefits from, instructor-provided study guides” (Cushen et al., 2019, p. 109). Their review of related research raises some potential issues with study guides and how students might be using them. If study guides or other handouts identify what’s important, define key terms, or list central concepts, that’s preparation students don’t have to do. Armed with a detailed study guide, they relax and rely on their favorite test-prep strategies: rereading and memorizing. Research keeps showing that neither of these strategies involves the deep processing that’s necessary to understand and apply the content, and it’s that deep processing that improves performance on exams and enhances long-term retention.
To determine whether their hunch about study strategies was correct, the researchers tested two treatments in multiple sections of an introductory psychology course. In the first, students received a teacher-provided concept-list study guide that identified the topics the exam would cover. In the second, students were not given a study guide but encouraged to generate one using their notes and the text. The researchers hypothesized that providing students with a concept-list study guide would result in poorer exam performance and long-term retention than not providing one would.
Although the poorer exam performance the researchers predicted occurred, neither treatment affected long-term retention. They tested long-term retention at the end of the course by including ten questions from the exam on a survey the students took. The presence of those questions surprised students, though their answers to those repeat questions did not affect their earlier test grades.
In their survey responses, over 60 percent of the students indicated a preference for the teacher-provided concept-list study guide, less than 30 percent preferred a self-generated guide, and the rest had no preference or thought the two options were of equal value. Interestingly, in results from another survey completed by a different student cohort, “the vast majority” (p. 113) preferred the instructor-provided guide; among the six different kinds of study guides identified, almost 80 percent preferred the one that provided definitions and examples of the concepts.
According to the authors, “Study guides that include definitions and applications require the least amount of student input or effort and thus may be viewed by students as more efficient aids to studying, despite probably providing fewer benefits to learning” (p. 113). In other words, students think these detailed study guides are the secret to quick and easy exam preparation. They can create a false sense of confidence that may well lead students to study less.
The bottom line (and other studies bear this out): students need to be doing the hard, messy work of learning, including making their own study guides. Convincing them to do that is another story. There may need be credit involved—bonus exam points, for instance, if a student submits a guide with the test. Maybe they get a skeleton guide, something more like a test preparation worksheet where they fill in the material. Or what about a discussion of the features of good study review materials, including why it’s beneficial for students to be making their own? The teacher could post a summary of that exchange on the course website. Would it motivate students to make a study guide if they’re allowed to briefly consult it during the exam?
Whether the teacher or the student makes them, creating exam review materials is hard work. The question is who benefits the most from preparing and using them. This research reminds those of us who teach that sometimes doing less for students does more for learning.
Cushen, P. J., Hackathorn, J., Brown, M. V., Rife, S. C., Joyce, A., Smith, E. D., . . . Daniels, J. (2019). “What’s on the test?”: The impact of giving students a concept-list study guide. Teaching of Psychology, 46(2), 109–114.