I am often asked a very simple, and rather loaded, question: “How should I study?”
The question always results in an elongated pause from me, because it is an immensely broad question. Are we asking about a daily study routine, a very important skill to master? Or how to study using past exams, or how to learn from a test grade that was less than stellar? Am I allowed to select answer D, all of the above?
I’ve taken to informally asking students how they go about studying for an exam. Do any of these tactics mirror what you do, done the day or two before an exam?
- Highlighting the textbook or notes.
- Reading the chapter(s).
- Reading notes from start to finish.
- If given a sample exam or problems, focusing on those problems.
- Making flashcards.
- Creating mnemonics to remember necessary information.
- Doing some of the assigned homework problems.
Would you believe that many of the techniques students are using, mine included, are minimally useful?
In a paper published last month in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of authors, led by John Dunlosky, examined ten commonly used and pervasive learning techniques, thoroughly reviewing decades of literature that has been readily available for educators. Their conclusions are powerful and reinforce what leading STEM teachers have been repeating to legions of students year after year.
You may not have the time to read all fifty-some-odd pages of the paper (though, if you can, I recommend you do!). From the report, I’ve culled some important takeaway messages that students need to hear!
- Highlighting. Summarizing. Rereading. Mnemonics. These techniques, often the primary ones that the students use are not effective. Honestly, I am not surprised. Whenever a student uses any of these techniques, it tends to promote memorization of the material and recitation of fact. There’s no understanding of the material. It’s low in taxonomy. For example, I haven’t been able to have a student discuss with me what they highlighted in their textbook. I am not saying that these should be abandoned. If you remember what is on the page by taking notes, summarizing, highlighting while you read, fantastic. What I am arguing is that it is only the first step. You have to understand what you read and what was discussed in the class! That requires techniques of “high utility.”
- Constant practice, each day, and working through practice tests are of the “high utility.” There is no substitute to working, and reworking, problems in STEM subjects. Solving a chemistry or calculus problem takes not only understanding of the subject matter, but also skills, and skills need practice for someone to get both great at and efficient with that. Find me a serious, competent athlete that does not practice most days of the week and is at the top of his/her game; you will not find that athlete. Academics are no different! And if my students think I am beyond brilliant when I discuss a topic in science with them, I tell them that it isn’t that I’m smarter, it is that I’ve been talking about these things for a long time, and often several times a day. There is a reason why good standardized test prep courses have students work through practice tests, and practice sets nearly every day. Practice makes perfect!
- Some are of “moderate utility.” I find techniques like explaining the steps taken to solve a problem, explaining why a principle or fact is true, or mixing up the kinds of practice problems in a single session of studying, to be useful if you implement them correctly. Why? If you are engaging in simple recitation without any thought as to why or how, you end up engaging low taxonomy again. I love having students explain not only the steps taken to solve a problem, but also why they are doing each step, and how it relates to the science. At the end of my first year teaching AP Chemistry, the Salutatorian of the graduating class said in his speech that I drilled into his head, “Tell me what is going on in the beaker.” I wouldn’t let anyone debate anything with me unless they were going to discuss the actual science and make their point. Made for some rather powerful teaching moments, and chemistry students that went onto college and rivaled their classmates.
What’s the bottom line here? We all need to practice everyday. We all need to practice high taxonomical problems and questions. We need to discuss the science and the math of what we are doing. Otherwise, we are cheating ourselves.
Imagine that you are using “high utility” techniques in conjunction with knowing what will be expected of you to demonstrate on an exam. How do you think you will do on your next exam? Quite well, I’d say.