Wednesday, 28 September 2016

The study strategies of top students

The headline of this Washington Post story from a couple of weeks ago is pretty provocative: "A telling experiment reveals a big problem among college students: They don’t know how to study". The problem is that the story doesn't actually tell us enough about the experiment to be able to judge. Here's the closest that the story gets:
Instead of highlighting, posing and answering questions as they read forces students to think about meaning, and helps them recognize whether they really understand. To prepare for a test, self-quizzing actually boosts memory more than studying does. For example in one recent experiment, college students read 36 facts taken from a freshman biology course. Then some took a quiz on the facts while others restudied them for an equivalent amount of time. Memory for the facts was tested two days later and those who took the quiz outperformed the re-studiers, 61 percent versus 39 percent.
Unfortunately, I can't find the study referred to in that paragraph (given a few minutes of Google Scholar searching), and the link refers to a different (and much older) study. Reading that WaPo article wasn't a total bust though. The paragraph before the one quoted above is of interest too:
Some students leave college because classes just aren’t going well. However, most students have never been taught how to study and the strategies they devise on their own don’t work. For example, they highlight their textbooks to signal what they should review later, but if you’re reading difficult material for the first time you probably can’t identify what’s important. When preparing for an exam, students reread their highlighted textbook and their lecture notes, but rereading doesn’t make information stick because it’s so easy to repeat something mindlessly. Think of the last time you tried to remember someone’s name by saying it to yourself again and again.
 An ungated version of the paper linked in that paragraph is available here. It makes for interesting reading, although it isn't really helpful if you want to know the study strategies that are successful. In the paper the authors (Marissa Hartwig and John Dunlosky, both of Kent State University) interviewed 324 introductory psychology students about their study habits and their GPA. They then sort out which study habits are exhibited more by students with high GPAs, and which are exhibited more by students with low GPAs. Of course, this is correlation not causation - we have no idea whether the study strategies used by high-GPA students are effective for raising GPAs, only that the better students are using them.

Here's what they found:
In summary, low performers were especially likely to base their study decisions on impending deadlines rather than planning, and they were also more likely to engage in late-night studying. Although spacing (vs. massing) study was not significantly related to GPA, spacing was associated with the use of more study strategies overall. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, self-testing was a relatively popular strategy and was significantly related to student achievement.
Perhaps the most interesting bit of that is that self-testing (posing and answering questions while reading, doing practice problems, etc.) was more often used by better performing students. It would be good to know if this was causal rather than simply correlation (which is why I was disappointed with no link to the experiment mentioned in the WaPo article). Similarly, late-night studying was more prevalent among the lowest performers, but it would be good to know if there was anything causal in that.

The most surprising result in the Hartwig and Dunlosky study (to me at least) was that some 23 percent of those surveyed claimed to "usually return to course material to review it after a course has ended". That wasn't my experience as a student (except in a very few cases of economic theory or econometrics that I referred back to during postgraduate study!), although all teachers (including me) probably hope that students look back on things that we covered sometime after the course has finished.

[HT: David McKenzie at Development Impact]

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