To: My Students
From: Your Teacher
Subject: Studying for exams
No, this isn’t the usual plea urging you to study more. This is about getting you to think about what you do when you study. Based on lots of evidence, researchers can tell you which approaches are the most likely to improve exam scores. Do you know how you should study?
Would you like to venture some guesses? From my vantage point, I’d say students have three favorite study strategies: highlighting, re-reading, and cramming. Brightly colored highlighters in hand, students highlight key passages—you might highlight most of a page if you aren’t sure what’s important—and when you study, you re-read those passages. When I ask about exam preparation, you tell me you’re going to “go over” (as in re-read) your notes. And we all know students cram for exams. You don’t intend to cram, but lives are busy and there are many more pressing or interesting options than studying. So, it’s the night before the exam or the hour before the test, and you’re shoveling material fast and furiously in the direction of your head. Are those the most effective study strategies? Not according to the researchers. In fact, highlighting, re-reading, and cramming are at the bottom of their lists.
What’s at the top? Practice testing. Now, that doesn’t mean getting an old test from the course, looking at the right answers, and hoping the test doesn’t change from semester to semester. It means looking at those test questions and trying to answer them on your own, doing the same thing with the chapter study questions, or studying with a buddy and asking each other potential test questions. Most students turn up their noses at this strategy because it’s more work, but it’s so much more effective than reviewing your notes. You can re-read something and convince yourself you understand it because it seems familiar. It’s not until you try to answer questions about it that you see just how deep (or shallow) your understanding is. Sure, it takes more time and effort, but it’s better to find out before the test than during it. The reason practice testing works: you’re doing what you’re going to be doing on the exam—answering questions!
What else works? Regular review, not cramming and not marathon study sessions. Yes, cramming does work. Students wouldn’t have done it for decades if it didn’t produce results. But here’s the rub when it comes to cramming. It’s fine if the test questions ask you to regurgitate bits and pieces of information, those memorized details that you’ve temporarily stashed upstairs. If the question asks you to put that information together or apply it to something new and all you’ve got are information bytes, you’re in trouble. The second problem is that even with a respectable exam score, you haven’t learned what the grade says you know. Two weeks later, you can’t take that exam and get the same score. Regular review provides more opportunities to retrieve the material, which makes it that much easier to understand and remember.
The research is also pretty clear that students can learn from each other. Students can explain things to each other in a language they understand and with examples that make sense to them. Students can ask each other “stupid” questions—ones they’d rather not ask the teacher. In some situations, I think students can learn better from each other than from the teacher. When someone has studied a content area for a long time, it’s hard to remember what it’s like not knowing the basics. The concepts seem simple, obvious and teachers can’t figure out why students are confused. But a fellow classmate who’s just learned it out knows exactly why it’s hard, confusing, and doesn’t make sense. So, get yourself a study buddy or consider forming a study group.
I’m a bit concerned about research that shows how reluctant students are to change how they study. Really? It is true that students learn in different ways so not every approach works equally well for every person. But this is college, the place you go to get prepared for lifelong learning and to discover new perspectives, so find out what study strategies work best for you! And don’t settle for what you “think” is best. Try out some new study strategies. If you’re worried about doing that on an exam, try them out on a quiz. See if they make a difference in your performance and in how well you understand what you’re learning.
And lastly, I am here to help. Learning is hard, messy work but you’ve got me on your side and I’m committed to helping you make it happen.