How should your students study? Not by re-reading!

For those of you already past final exams for the year, kudos!  For others of us on the home stretch, we have a few remaining opportunities to counsel our students on how best to study for exams (thereby potentially inoculating against crappy final exam outcomes we have to grade???).

boymeetsworldfreakoutLet’s face it — many of our students really don’t know how to study effectively, because they’ve never really been taught. And, sadly, they often take the path of least resistance, thinking that learning happens when it’s easy. While we have an opportunity, let’s give them some helpful tips, shall we?

Maryellen Weimer of The Teaching Professor Blog wrote the following for Faculty Focus (have you subscribed to their free pedagogical advice updates yet? you should!). Might be common sense to some of us, but it will be news to — and potentially welcome advice for — our students stressing out over the home stretch.


Is Rereading the Material a Good Study Strategy?

By:  in Teaching Professor Blog

Lots of good writing on the science of learning is coming out now and it’s needed. For too long we have known too little about learning—I won’t digress into the reasons why. We need to take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about this science.

Here’s a case in point. Most students (about 80% according to survey data) “study” textbooks and other assigned reading materials by rereading them. Yes, I know. It’s a huge struggle to get some students to do any reading. We have addressed that problem here previously and you’ll find another good way to get students reading in the June/July issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter. But for this post, let’s consider those students who’ve done the reading and are now “studying” it to prepare for an exam. Most students do that by simply rereading the material.

“Rereading has three strikes against it. It is time consuming. It doesn’t result in durable memory. And it often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the material.” (p. 10) I was a bit taken back when I first read that. But part of the argument made sense immediately. I remembered all those earnest students who’d done poorly on an exam and were upset because they’d spent so much time studying. They’d open their texts and the extensive (often glowing) highlighting bore witness to the fact they had read and reread the material. But their exam scores told another story: they did not understand what they’d read.

I also recalled that when I asked students how they planned to study, most announced that they’d “go over” their notes.” I glibly suggested that “getting into” notes might be a more productive approach. Students want studying to be easy. As one writer noted, they think they’re doing the reading if their eyes touch the words in their books or notes, repeatedly touching eyes and words, means they’re really studying hard.

Cognitive scientists say that rereading isn’t a particularly good study strategy if it doesn’t involve retrieval, what they call the testing effect. “We’ve long known that the act of retrieving knowledge from memory has the effect of making that knowledge easier to call up again in the future.” (p. 28) Scores of studies document that if students read material and then take a test on it, they recall way more on the second test than students who prepare by simply rereading the material.

So, instead of rereading the material, students need to be testing themselves on it. Can you imagine the enthusiasm that would greet that recommendation? I wish those writing about the testing effect would come up with a different name. For students, tests are high-stakes, high-stress assessments, and the last thing they want is more of them. But the kind of retrieval that enhances long-term memory and understanding involves asking questions and coming up with answers. Think flashcards with a question that must be answered before checking the back of the card. Yes, answers to flashcards can be memorized and yet still not understood. But testing for understanding can come with more questions: And why is this answer important? What does it relate to? How does this answer connect with what I already know? Can I elaborate this answer? Can I illustrate it with an example?

You can see why a touch-and-go reread is the preferred option for students. Interrogating the text to test for understanding is hard work. It takes effort and persistence. “We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier, but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better. The greater the effort to retrieve learning, provided that you succeed, the more that learning is strengthened by retrieval.” (p. 43)

I expect disavowing students of the rereading strategy will not be easy. But do most students study effectively? If they don’t, we need to start asking questions and suggesting alternatives.

Reference: Here’s another new, well written book on the science of learning—great for summer reading. It makes the case against rereading in chapters one and two.

Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., and McDaniel, M. A. Making it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.

© Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.


Who doesn’t love free books?

At the end of the academic year, we all get overwhelmed with grading final exams and papers, scrambling to finish projects, and trying to make plans for the summer. Once the hullabaloo is finished, who doesn’t like to stretch out on the porch or the beach on a sunny day and read something you actually want to read?

While the purpose of this blog isn’t unsolicited advertising, you know I love free. And this is a great offer.

During the month of May, Routledge is offering “free to view” monograph research books via their Routledge Library Channel. I’ve got my eye on a book about the origins of visual American icons –looks neat!

Here are the subject areas they’re offering — check it out, and read something interesting after your final grades are turned in!

Better class quizzes and discussion? Roll for initiative, adventurers!

Some things we get aggravated about:

  • Students don’t read for class; or,
  • Students read for class, but in a crappy way that doesn’t focus on what we want them to focus on; so,
  • Students aren’t prepared for what we want to accomplish in class.

The good news is that we know that students, particularly in the millennial generation, crave formative feedback on their progress and want reinforcement that they’re learning what they should. And so, despite their whining, by and large they actually like quizzes! We also know that frequent quizzing actually provides better learning outcomes than fewer summative exams (see, for instance, Roediger and Karpicke, 2006).

So when my friend Margaret posted this short article in Vitae / Pedagogy Unbound by David Gooblar, reminding me of an approach to quizzes I actually use all the time (after I stole the idea from my colleague Ellen), it felt a bit nifty to be indirectly affirmed! When I do this approach to randomized selection of quiz questions announced in advance, I use this virtual Dungeons and Dragons dice-roller — it lets me use more options than the typical 6-side cube (4-siders, 8-siders), channels my inner Dungeon Master and scores me a few desperate pop culture geek points.

Anyway, check this out, continue to check out Pedagogy Unbound, and steal this idea!


Want Students to Come to Class Prepared? Try Rolling the Dice.

For many instructors, myself included, chance is the enemy. I know that I can’t control everything that will happen during class time. But I aim to prepare well enough that, for the most part, things go according to plan.

Yes, there can be happy surprises when a class discussion unexpectedly takes on a life of its own and goes to new and exciting places. But most of the time I worry that if I don’t keep a firm hand on the steering wheel, the class will slip off track, become unfocused, or get bogged down in irrelevant minutiae. Whenever I have a bad class, the lesson I usually take home is that I didn’t prepare enough. I left too much up to chance.

But a couple of tips I recently stumbled upon actually embrace chance as a tool to help instructors encourage active learning and participation among students. These tips suggest that allowing a little randomness into our classrooms can have a positive effect on learning outcomes.

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