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Teaching Tip: Discussing Studying Techniques with Students

When I was teaching chemistry, one of the hardest things to hear from a student was something like this: “I studied so hard and really thought I understood the material, and I still bombed the exam.” This was often followed by a diagnosis: “I just don’t do well on tests.” In my current role as Dean, I hear similar frustrations from students who need my permission to repeat a class they’ve failed (often math.) They’ve worked on the assigned problems, visited the tutoring center regularly, and still struggle.

What can we say to these students? I’ve found that I can often give new hope to students by talking with them about how they study, and how that might be hurting them. I first check to be sure that they are working on the sample problems scattered throughout the chapter. Often they are, but they generally do it with the book open, following the pattern of the worked example. I point out to them that while this may allow them to complete the problem successfully, it does not mean they understand how to do the problem – it just means that they can follow a pattern. Further, it creates a false sense of accomplishment that can lead to that earlier statement (“I thought I understood, and I still bombed…”).

I suggest that it is essential that they work the problem just like they will have to work problems on the quiz or exam – with the book closed, and no reference to notes. In effect, they need to test themselves. At this point, I like to encourage them along this path (which will almost certainly be more challenging to them) by throwing in a bit about the testing effect (in short, that just the act of taking a test can help learning) and on Robert Bjork’s work on “desirable difficulty” (again in short, that struggling with a problem enhances learning).

Next, I encourage them to work the problems at the end of the chapter, but warn that there is a danger here as well – textbooks frequently group like problems together, which amounts to “blocked practice.” Blocked practice is shown to produce less learning than “interleaved practice,” where problems of different sorts are randomly mixed. Here again I warn them that studying this way will seem more difficult, but that this is a “desirable difficulty” that has been shown to produce greater learning gains. Interleaved practice helps students learn to discern between types of problems and to select the correct strategy needed to solve that type of problem. I point out that it is also more like what they will experience on the test, where there’s no bold type announcing what sort of problem is next.

While I haven’t yet collected even anecdotal results on whether students put this advice to use, or if it helps (writing this is prompting me to follow up with the students I’ve talked with!), I do know that many of them acknowledge that they have fallen into these “traps” and leave with renewed enthusiasm for studying with this approach, and a bit of hope that maybe in fact they can learn to test well. That, at least, is a start!

Resources

For more on the testing effect, and how to make use of it in education: http://www.retrievalpractice.org/

To learn more about Robert Bjork’s ideas on “desirable difficulty”: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/all-about-addiction/201105/desirable-difficulties-in-the-classroom

And for an overview of the work on interleaved practice: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-interleaving-effect-mixing-it-up-boosts-learning/

Submitted by:
Maria A. Taydem, Ph.D.
Interim Dean of Math and Science
McHenry County College
mtaydem@mchenry.edu