It's a question on every student's mind, especially those just starting their college careers. Sometimes they ask other students, peers they know and can speak to without feeling foolish. Rarely do they ask the teacher, but they occasionally ask a tutor or other learning professional.
It's a question on every student's mind, especially those just starting their college careers. Sometimes they ask other students, peers they know and can speak to without feeling foolish. Rarely do they ask the teacher, but they occasionally ask a tutor or other learning professional. And generally they decide to study the same way they usually do for exams.
However, the question is most accurately answered with the ubiquitous, “It depends.” Amanda Sebesta and Elena Bray Speth write that the answer needs to take into account the course context, its learning goals, the instructor's style, how the knowledge will be assessed, and the individual characteristics of the learner. They recommend teachers start by asking students this question: “How do you study?” “We need information about the basic toolbox of strategies students are equipped with and comfortable using” (p. 3).
Furthermore, the answer depends on what study strategies work best, given the content students need to learn. And that's something expert learners (such as teachers) who've studied in a field extensively can share with students. However, teachers don't always know whether the study approaches that work best with the given content differ from those in other fields. If they do know, their ideas tend to be pretty generic.
To better answer the question of how to study for the exam in their large introductory biology courses, Sebesta and Bray Speth surveyed their students. Based on the well-known work of Zimmerman and Martinez-Pons on self-regulated learning, they developed a survey that included questions about metacognitive processes (study plans, goal setting, monitoring learning, and self-evaluation), motivational processes (self-efficacy, intrinsic interest in their studies, control over their learning, and accepting responsibility for what they learned), and behavioral processes (seeking information, structuring study environments, and adopting effective strategies). They wanted to learn which study strategies their students were using, which (if any) of those strategies were associated with higher exam scores, and which strategies students planned to adopt to prepare for future exams. Almost 400 students took the survey after the first and second exams in the course.
In both surveys, the most commonly used strategies were (1) seeking information (reported by over 90 percent of the students); (2) environmental structuring (e.g., finding a good place to study); (3) reviewing the textbook or screencasts; (4) seeking assistance from peers, and (5) keeping records and monitoring (e.g., taking notes in class). Over 80 percent of the students reported using these last four strategies, with only 77 percent saying they sought the assistance of peers after the second exam. The two strategies students reported using least often were seeking assistance from the instructor (with less than 20 percent of the students reporting that they did) and seeking assistance from other resources such as TAs and tutors (with only about 35 percent of the students reporting that they sought assistance from these sources).
Six strategies were significantly associated with grades on both exams: (1) self-evaluation (checking over work before submitting it and trying to understand why answers were wrong), (2) seeking information, (3) keeping records and monitoring, (4) seeking instructor assistance, (5) reviewing exams, and (6) reviewing graded work.
Student responses about proposed study plans did indicate a willingness to make changes in how they were preparing for the exams. Regardless of the grade received on the first exam, students most commonly reported that they planned to do more goal setting and planning and to improve time management. They aspired to avoid procrastination and cramming.
In outlining implications for instruction, Sebesta and Bray Speth point out that most beginning students are not expert learners. Instructors need to “become cognizant that (1) students are still developing their learning strategies and (2) self-regulation can be fostered in concrete ways” (p. 10). Surveys, such as the one used in this research, make students aware of potential study approaches and if students find out that certain study approaches are associated with higher grades, they may be motivated to try them out.
Sebesta, A.J. and E. Bray Speth. (2017). How should I study for the exam? Self-regulated learning strategies and achievement in introductory biology. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 16 (2), 1–12.