First days of class are really fun. Or at least they can be. There is the energy of starting a new year and seeing a whole new cohort of students. There is the chance to unleash a new and improved pedagogy that reflects all the changes you made over the summer and the thinking and reading you have done. Did you have a new or novel pedagogical game plan this year? How different was your first day this year from what it was before?
It is easy to get into a rut. If we have taught for some time or have a lot to juggle, it is easy to step back into class and do much more of what we did before. I set myself a new goal this year. I decided to really ratchet up how much class time I devote to building student skills rather than covering content. In line with a lot of my own recent reading, thinking, and writing, I decided to try and really develop in my students all the skills they needed to study effectively. I went beyond just sharing what the best study techniques were, also providing them with tools to make explicit changes to what they do.
A lot has been written about study skills or the lack thereof. Many of us faculty talk about how students do not take notes much. There is also a good accumulation of data that shows that students do not study in the most effective ways. For example, Blasiman and colleagues have conducted a number of studies that provide a close look at what students do. They identified 10 of the most common study techniques students use and that cognitive science has studied. Blasiman et al.’s (2016) findings are important to factor into our course planning and instructional plans.
First, they showed that most students procrastinate and intend to study for exams the day before. No surprise there, but what was unanticipated was that even beyond this intention, actual studying falls far short. On average, students thought they would study for 100 minutes the day before the exam but ended up studying for around only 40 minutes. Forget about starting three to four days before. Second, they found the study techniques that students most intended to use were not ones that researchers highlight as being most effective (Dunlosky et al., 2013). For example, students reported the study techniques they most intended to use were reading notes and using flashcards, whereas the two most effective ways to study are repeatedly testing yourself and spacing out your practice.
It is not that students do not know what good techniques are. Data from my lab showed that students do know what the best ways to study are (Bartoszewski & Gurung, 2015) even if they do not use those techniques. Miyatsu et al. (2018) suggest meeting students halfway. Having first measured what techniques students have the highest preference for, they then provide ways to optimize the use of these techniques even when the techniques may not be the ones cognitive science suggests. Like Blasiman et al., Miyatsu et al. found that students showed strong preferences for rereading, underlining, highlighting, copying notes, outlining, and using flash cards. While I applaud their efforts to make lemonade from lemons (e.g., providing ways to make rereading more effective), I suggest we go directly to giving our students the most effective tools to use.
The first step is getting students to take a good look at how they study and where they stand on some key barriers to studying. While I used to discuss what optimal study techniques were in class, I realized that students still did not know the extent to which they favored ineffective methods. To take it a step up, I now have students complete some validated and reliable measures so they can reflect and perhaps change. A good place to start is to have them measure how much they use each of the 10 most common strategies. Share this study behaviors measure. When students complete it, it automatically scores their responses, so they get a report of how much they use each strategy. If they score low on practice testing or spacing, they will know exactly what to change.
Two other important skills to build are effective note-taking and reducing procrastination. Again, perhaps students just do not know where they stand. First, have them take this measure of procrastination, then have them assess their note-taking skills. Again, both surveys are designed to provide a report back to students. You can assign these three surveys to students and discuss the results in class. This active involvement in their own learning will increase students’ metacognitive skills and inspire them to make concrete changes to what they do. For more surveys, see this collection, and if you want easy video instructions to share with students for the main study techniques, see the collection here (first discussed in my August piece).
Providing these explicit tools to students goes far beyond just telling students they need to study more or better. These self-assessments foster greater accountability and self-awareness for students, empowering them to change their behaviors. Even if you are not familiar or comfortable with the theories or research on the optimal ways to study, sharing these tools with students will put the ball in their court.
Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is associate vice provost and executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of psychological science at Oregon State University. His latest book is Study Like a Champ. Follow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.