RAP ON: “Things will be different on the next test” – Expectations vs Reality of changing how we study.

About the Author: William Rayo, MAT is a graduate student in the applied cognition area of the School of Psychological Science at Oregon State University. This is part of our series of Research Advancing Pedagogy (RAP) blogs, designed to share  pedagogical research from across the disciplines in a pragmatic format. 

When it comes to studying, how students go about it can vary as much as when they go about it. In the last few years researchers have been trying to figure out what methods work by seeing how students actually study for their classes.

We’ve learned that one of the key contributors to enduring understandings is the use of Active learning strategies such as retrieval practice (e.g. self-quizzing), elaborative interrogation, and distributed practice (for a review see Dunlosky et al. 2013). Even though studying with these methods is more difficult they actually lead to greater levels of

long-term learning. In contrast students tend to prefer studying by rereading, highlighting, or rewriting notes that feel easier even if they lead to lower levels of long-term learning (also known as passive learning strategies).

The study we’re going to dive into today goes one step further by examining how students across two intro psych classes and an upper-level psych course evaluate their performance after an exam, plan modifications to their study strategies/habits, and follow up to see which modifications were actually implemented.

What did they do?

Rowell et al. (2020) investigated how students across two Intro Psych classes and an upper-level psychology course revised their study strategies in preparation for Exam 2 after receiving their Exam 1 scores. Students were asked what habits they wanted to maintain/change and to make a specific study plan. A week before exam 2 the researchers followed up to identify which behaviors actually changed. They also predicted that students who used active strategies would outperform those who mainly used passive ones. (attempting to control for ACT, Exam 1 score, study time)

What did they find?

The number one strategy that students wanted to keep was an active learning strategy endorsed by the professor, quizzing (retrieval practice). Second on the list was a passive learning strategy, rereading.

The most common changes students wanted to make in preparation for exam 2 were changes to study contexts (e.g., reducing cramming and distractions).

So, what strategies did they actually use?

The good: When we ask about the two most commonly used strategies, we see a reduction in the use of some passive learning strategies such as reading notes and the textbook. We also see an increase in the number of students who reported using the active learning strategies of quizzing or flashcards (retrieval practice) as well as explaining to self/others. As predicted students who identified both of their most used study practices as active strategies outperformed those who reported mostly using either mixed or two passive strategies on exam 2.

The not so good: the proportion of students reading the slides (passive learning) increased from Exam 1 to Exam 2. For active learning strategies the proportion of students answering textbook questions for practice diminished as well as explaining to self/others.

What are the Big Takeaway’s for instructors?

Students are going to utilize a blend of strategies that are familiar in addition to trying out a few new ones. It is important to educate our students on the more effective study strategies since most students display a willingness to try something new. In the meantime, while we wait for active learning strategies to gain momentum a temporary fix might exist in helping students improve the quality of their preferred strategies. For a deeper look at how we can help students improve their preferred strategies see Miyatsu et al. (2018).

Re-reading can be made more effective by encouraging students to space out the instances where they engage in it instead of cramming the night (or morning) before the exam. It’s possible that the overwhelming majority students who reported reading their notes in preparation for the exam could benefit from some direct instruction with examples on how to take efficient notes. Whether they prefer to take them longhand or via keyboard (Urri et al. 2019).

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest14(1), 4–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266
Miyatsu, T., Nguyen, K., & McDaniel, M. A. (2018). Five popular study strategies: Their pitfalls and optimal implementations. Perspectives on Psychological Science13(3), 390–407. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617710510
Rowell, S. F., Frey, R. F., & Walck-Shannon, E. M. (2020). Intended and Actual Changes in Study Behaviors in an Introductory and Upper-Level Psychology Course. Teaching of Psychology, 009862832097989. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628320979893
Urry, H. L. (2019). Don’t Ditch the Laptop Just Yet: A Direct Replication of Mueller and Oppenheimer’s (2014) Study 1 Plus Mini-Meta-Analyses Across Similar Studies [Preprint]. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/vqyw6

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