When I was in graduate school, I had to pass four written preliminary exams over various subject areas in psychology. Each exam was three hours long, closed book, and composed of essay and short answer questions. The questions could cover any topic in the subject area, and to pass, you had better be able to cite relevant research and researchers from memory. To prepare for each exam, we were given an extensive list of research articles and books to read in the months before the exam. When I read over the list, my heart sank. Then I realized something that gave me hope. The list was composed of classic research articles written by the biggest names in the field. The findings were so renowned that nearly all the researchers had written accounts of their research for more general audiences in journals such as Scientific American. I could just read those articles. They were much shorter and easier to read but still had the level of detail I needed. After all, how much detail can you go into in three hours? That’s what I (and all my friends) did, and we passed.
Now that I’m a professor, I see students trying something similar in preparing for my exams, but usually with less success. Instead of coming to class or reading the book, they look up YouTube videos on the topics, thinking that doing so will save them time and effort. They review existing sets of electronic flash cards that cover the assigned chapter instead of reading the chapter. They take practice exams by searching for the answer online or in the textbook instead of using the exam to assess their level of understanding. In the wake of COVID-19, many lectures are now recorded. Students might “study” by listening to lectures on an accelerated speed while they drive to and from work. Morehead et al. (2019) found that only half of students take notes on online lectures. I hear similar stories from my STEM colleagues about students using homework problem services and from my humanities colleagues about paper writing services.
But there are important differences between what I did in graduate school and what students are doing now that affect the success of the tactic. I was certain that the material in the briefer article reflected the original research because the same person wrote both. I knew that the brief articles still covered topics in the breadth and depth I needed. When students use third-party sources in place of assigned readings, they can’t be certain that they address the material with the same depth and breadth. The explanations and examples given may differ from what I give, and I write the exams to match what I’ve covered in class. There is also no guarantee that a YouTube video will be accurate. If students use homework services for problems and Google for answers, they may benefit in the short term, but they have failed to prepare themselves for high-stakes exams and papers. Trying to “hack” studying often sets students up for failure.
I can’t blame students for looking for easier routes to learning, because I did the same thing. It’s just that these days there is a culture of seeking out hacks and shortcuts so that it seems like only chumps do the assigned work. Furthermore, there is a plethora of free resources of varying quality only a click away. When I was an undergraduate, there were note-taking services you could subscribe to so you didn’t have to go to class, but you had to pay for it.
Before you jump to the conclusion that doing anything other than going to class and doing the assigned work is a bad idea, let me tell you another story. My son took several classes in which the lessons and assignments were too confusing for him to follow. I would review the slides and assignments, and they confounded me as well. In one math class, the teacher posted a recording of his lecture on a topic that I cover in my statistics course. If I hadn’t already known the concept, I could not have understood it from his explanation. In cases like these, I looked up reliable yet accessible YouTube tutorials to substitute for what should have happened in class. The tactic was effective in helping my son learn when the teacher was ineffective or indifferent.
The lesson here is that we must be sure that we are the best, most reliable, most accessible source of information for our students. Students need to see that attending class and doing the assignments is clearly the most efficient use of their time in terms of mastering the concepts and preparing for exams. We cannot assume that students will automatically see us in this way, nor can we assume that if the information in our presentations is accurate and up to date, then we have fulfilled that role.
Our presentations and assignments must be in a constant state of refinement. We need to be open to new ways of teaching or new activities that might improve student learning, and we need to assess these methods to make sure they are successful for our students. We should tailor our teaching according to what we know about the science of learning, leveraging the strengths of the human cognitive system and compensating for its weaknesses (Chew & Cerbin, 2020). We need to let our students know that we have designed our courses to be the most efficient and effective possible route to learning. The assignments we give are not meaningless exercises but designed to help students learn. Students should attend class and do the assignments because doing so is the best way to achieve the learning goals of the class. The role of the teacher goes beyond presenting information; it must involve designing an academic environment that supports learning. f
Teachers now compete with a broad range of potential learning resources of widely varying quality and accuracy. Many of them are easier than doing the assigned work, and they’re often more fun. If students want to learn and succeed, however, they need to understand that following what the teacher has prepared for them is the best way to achieve those goals—and teachers need to make sure that it is so.
 You needed to score a 3.5 out of 8 to pass. We had a saying: “Anything over a 3.5 is a waste of effort.”
Chew, S. L. & Cerbin, W. J. (2021). The cognitive challenges of effective teaching. The Journal of Economic Education, 52(1), 17–40. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220485.2020.1845266
Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Blasiman, R., & Hollis, R. B. (2019). Note-taking habits of 21st century college students: Implications for student learning, memory, and achievement. Memory, 27(6), 807–819. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2019.1569694
Stephen L. Chew, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Samford University. Trained as a cognitive psychologist, he endeavors to translate cognitive research into forms that are useful for teachers and students. He is the recipient of multiple awards for his teaching and research. Author contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.