There's no question that how we teach is important. An abundance of evidence supports the power of approaches that actively engage students in learning. But there's also no question that how students study (or don't study) has an equally important effect on their learning, and that's not an area to which we devote a lot of attention.
There's no question that how we teach is important. An abundance of evidence supports the power of approaches that actively engage students in learning. But there's also no question that how students study (or don't study) has an equally important effect on their learning, and that's not an area to which we devote a lot of attention. Yes, what students do once they leave the classroom or log off the course website is mostly beyond our control. But teachers do have some influence over what students do when they aren't in class. If there's an announcement about a test on Tuesday, that will affect the behavior of many students.
To influence study behavior even more, we need to know when, for how long, where, with whom, and how students study. So far most of the research has looked at each of these factors individually. We know that despite good intentions, many students procrastinate and finally get serious about studying the night before an exam. We know from studies such as the National Survey of Student Engagement that students (even those with good grades) are not studying for a long as we think they need to. We know that students collaborate with peers, often to discuss what they think will be on the exam. As for what students do when they study, consistently a large percentage of them report that they reread the text and “go over” their notes. Unfortunately, an impressive review of research (highlighted in the January 2016 issue) that looked at 10 learning techniques rated these two approaches among the least effective study strategies.
A lengthy and detailed analysis of study habits by Matthew Hora and Amanda Oleson proposes that the subject is better understood from a holistic perspective. Student decisions regarding when, where, and for how long they study are not isolated, unrelated acts, nor are the behaviors that result from those decisions. “The literature on study skills, strategies, and habits is limited by a tendency to reduce the complex and multi-faceted behaviors that comprise studying to metrics that cannot capture how and why students study. . . .” (p. 3). In contrast, Hora and Oleson conceptualize studying as “the discrete behaviors of individuals (e. g., reviewing notes) as they unfold within specific contexts and that implicate particular artifacts and resources.” Their work on studying rests on a straightforward question: “How can we best support student success if we do not understand how they study?” (p. 2).
Their analysis of studying is exploratory. They analyzed what 66 students said about studying when they were interviewed in 22 focus groups. The students were enrolled in biology, physics, earth science, or mechanical engineering courses and were asked the following: “Imagine for a moment how you typically study for this course. Can you describe in as much detail as possible your study situation?” (p. 4).
The researchers did not provide a definition of studying and found that student definitions varied. Some consider attending class as studying, some think completing assignments constitutes studying, and others said studying is what they do outside of class but did not associate it with completing an assignment. Furthermore, before discussing how they study, these students talked about what motivates them to study. And here 40 of the 66 reported that they study based on cues from the instructor, mostly related to upcoming exams. Only four participants reported that they study when they don't understand or fully grasp the material.
Regarding when they study and what resources they marshal, 11 said they start studying a few days before an exam, 14 said the night before, and 15 said they study throughout the course. They use digital resources, starting with the course website, followed by Google and Wikipedia. An even larger group identified the textbook and their notes as resources. Very few mentioned human resources, such as the instructor or tutors. Nineteen reported that they are regularly disrupted by their electronic devices. Twenty-one said they have developed strategies for dealing with the disruptive nature of these devices. For 39 of these students, studying is a “solitary affair” (p. 8); 35 study with others and 24 said they study both alone and with others.
As for how they actually study, the researchers note, “The participants often described these strategies using imprecise or idiosyncratic terminology such that it was not possible to align them with those discussed in the literature” (p. 8). For example, when students talked about reading the textbook, frequently they “did not specify if they were re-reading it, reading it for the first time, or if they were skimming” (p. 8).
Beyond using their notes and the text to study, students (in varying numbers) reported making cue cards, doing problem sets, using practice (often old) tests, reviewing PowerPoint slides, completing study questions, looking at online resources, and reviewing weekly quizzes. The strategy reported least often was watching or rewatching lecture videos or podcasts. The researchers also looked at the strategies used in the context of when students studied, the level of course, whether the studying occurred in groups or alone, and the discipline of the course.
What's particularly noteworthy about this work is the idea that studying is not one thing but a combination of decisions and behaviors in response to particular situations. “By recognizing that studying involves multiple states, resources, strategies, and actors, it becomes necessary to move beyond simply providing ‘how-to' guides for studying or recommendations for students to use high-impact practices to instead think about the role that cue-seeking, resource acquisition, and distraction management play in shaping students' study habits” (p. 15).
The article concludes with a section that explores how instructors can deliberately design courses in ways that promote good study habits. They recommend providing students with a variety of resources and tools they can use to explore course content. Course websites make it easy to access these resources, and this group of students reported going to course-related digital resources first. Teachers can also influence how often students study with regular quizzes or weekly practice question assignments.
This excellent article merits reading and discussion for this reason: “The relationship between teaching and learning is anything but direct, linear, and unproblematic. What students decide to do in terms of when and how to study act as critical intermediaries between what instructors do in the classroom and students' ultimate performance in college” (p. 17).
Hora, M.T. and A.K. Oleson. (2017). Examining study habits in undergraduate STEM courses from a situative perspective. International Journal of STEM Education, 4 (1), 1–19. [Note: this is an open access journal.]