Thinking Strategically about Studying Improves Performance
By Cindy Wooldridge
We have so much advice when it comes to how students should study. We provide materials for six strategies for effective learning. We’ve written three blogs a week on effective learning for over a year. Any student who comes across this blog has tons of resources available to them to learn effectively (although they’re not prescriptions). Shoot, my students are required to look at this website for various assignments in class. So how is it that some of them still aren’t learning effectively?
Well, just giving students resources doesn’t help unless they use them (duh?). And without a lot of guidance, students tend to do a bad job of choosing appropriate resources. Part of that is because the best methods for learning are inherently more difficult (1), so students often choose the path of least resistance, like restudying instead of practicing retrieval (2). So we could, perhaps, develop an intervention where we teach students all about the effective learning strategies and give them an opportunity to practice using them… we’re doing this at Washburn University this fall, but it does take a lot of effort and time for the instructors. So you can imagine how excited I was when I saw this…
In this *hot off the presses* article, researchers discussed an intervention that is fairly easy to implement and requires almost no work on the part of the instructor (YES!) but improves students’ strategy selection and ultimately performance (3). Read on to hear how they did it.
Students in an introductory statistics class were randomly assigned to either the treatment or control group. Seven to ten days before each of two exams students were asked what score they hoped to achieve on the exam, how motivated they were, how important that grade was, and how confident they were that they could achieve that score. Students in the treatment group were then asked to think about the types of questions that would be on the upcoming exam and to choose from 15 different resources that they planned to utilize to prepare. These resources included things like retrieval practice, but also utilizing instructor office hours and lecture notes. For each resource, the students had to say why it would be useful and then come up with a concrete plan for where, when, and how they would implement that resource.
After each exam, all students were asked which resources they had actually used and how useful they found each one. They were also asked about how much control they felt they had over their score and whether or not they had followed through on their study plan.
Students in the treatment group did better on both exams and in the class overall than students in the control group. Specifically, by making a study plan, students in the treatment group scored about 4% higher. Because students were able to choose to do the surveys, not everyone completed both. The students who did choose to do the reflection on both exams? They scored about 9% higher in the class than those who only completed one.
Additional analyses showed that the more the students thought strategically about how to study, the more they found their strategies useful, and the more useful they actually were (in terms of performance)!
One of the big take away messages from the study is not that students used lots more resources. In fact, students in the treatment group used FEWER resources. They just used resources that were a lot more effective. When you use the right methods, then studying can actually become more efficient!
Finally, and not surprisingly, just having a plan wasn’t sufficient. The more that students reported actually putting their plans into action, the higher their grade. (They also reported lower test anxiety and higher control over their grades in the treatment group!)
Now, you may think “gosh, all I have to do is ask my students to make a study plan and their grades will improve!” and you MAY be right… for some of them. However, I would caution you against stopping there.
- to understand which resources available to them will be useful (and which won’t be!),
- to develop a study plan that requires them to think strategically, and
- motivation to develop said plan and follow through with it.
This last point is especially tricky. In the study described here, students were given extra credit for participating in every survey. Coming up with a feasible, reasonable way to motivate students is a never-ending battle for educators. But perhaps showing them that their scores could improve by 5-10% by creating a study plan is a good start.
(1) Yan, V. X., Clark, C. M., & Bjork, R. A. (2016, in press). Memory and metamemory considerations in the instruction of human beings revisited: Implications for optimizing online learning. In J. C. Horvath, J. Lodge, & J. A. C. Hattie (Eds). From the Laboratory to the Classroom: Translating the Learning Sciences for Teachers.
(2) Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practice retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17, 471-479.
(3) Chen, P., Chavez, O., Ong, D. C., & Gunderson, B. (2017). Strategic resource use for learning: A self-administered intervention that guides self-reflection on effective resource use enhances academic performance. Psychological Science (currently available online).