How can we help students study for exams?

Neil Schmitzer-Torbert, Associate Professor of Psychology, Daniel F. Evans Associate Professor in Social Sciences, Wabash College.
Contact at: torbertn@wabash.edu

[NOTE: This article was first published on July 3, 2018 on the Wabash College Teaching & Learning blog.]

During the 2017-18 academic year, the Teaching and Learning Committee [at Wabash College] hosted a series of conversations about challenges that we face in our teaching, and strategies that we could apply to address those challenges. Following our opening workshop in August, where we considered a wide range of challenges, two groups of faculty met monthly during the fall, discussing how to engage our students more effectively in learning, and how to handle difficult conversations in the classroom.

I participated in the Engaging Students in Learning group, and during the academic year, I worked to put into practice several course revisions intended to help students succeed by providing more effective feedback. One of these revisions was inspired by a reading that we discussed in our group, a blog post by Dr. Maryellen Weimer (How Should I Study for the Exam?In the article, Dr. Weimer describes the results of a research study conducted by Drs. Amanda Sebesta, and Elena Bray-Speth of St. Louis University (How Should I Study for the Exam? Self-Regulated Learning Strategies and Achievement in Introductory Biology).

Drs. Sebesta and Bray-Speth were interested in self-regulated learning (one’s ability to develop and execute an effective plan to study for an exam in this case), and they developed a survey to assess the types of self-regulated learning strategies that students used to study for exams in their introductory biology courses. They found that students who did well in the course, and those who improved across the semester, used more of the self-learning strategies, and that there were a subset of strategies correlated with better academic performance, some of which involved cognitive and metacognitive strategies (e.g. “I evaluate the quality or progress of my work. For example, I check over my assigned work to make sure I did it right; when I get an answer wrong, I try to understand why the correct answer is right.“).

As I continue to look for ways to help students succeed on my in-class exams, I found this study to be very promising. In the spring semester, I implemented the survey in two courses, in an attempt to:

  1. Identify which exam study strategies were related to better exam performance in my courses, and
  2. Determine if I could improve exam performance by encouraging the use of specific strategies.

To start, I first modified the exam study strategies survey (available on Dr. Weimer’s post) to fit two of my introductory courses (in psychology and neuroscience). This mainly involved adding a few questions that were relevant to activities I had implemented (such as pre-class reading questions, previous exams, lecture slides, etc). I had students complete the survey in the class period after our first exam (after they had completed the exam, but before they received their grade), and returned the surveys to students when they received their marked exam.

After the first exam, I looked at the responses of students who did well on the first exam (whose exam score was at least one standard deviation above the mean for their class) and identified a list of nine study strategies (of the 19 options) that these students reported using most often. These strategies included:

  • When I’m uncertain about the answer to an assignment question, I look up the information I need to answer the question.
  • I reread my notes.
  • I arrange my studying environment so I can learn more effectively (for example, I move to a quiet place or have background noise).
  • When I study, I rearrange and organize the information to improve my learning (by making outlines, diagrams, summaries, etc.).

When I returned the first exam to each class, I included a handout with information on exam performance (mean, standard deviation, etc.). And, I gave them the list of the nine recommended strategies. In the list, I made special emphasis of those strategies that were used more frequently by students who did well on the exam, compared to students who did worse (scoring at least one standard deviation below the mean). In the list above, the two strategies shown in bold, italicized font were reported as being used significantly more often by students who did well, compared to students who did worse, on the first exam.

Across the semester, I came back to this list of recommended strategies several times, and distributed another copy of the handout (in addition to posting it on our course page in our LMS). I made my recommendation of these strategies a significant emphasis in the course, coming back to it also in my individual meetings with students who were working to improve their course performance.

After the last in-class exam, and after our final exam, I had students complete the survey again (for the final exam, I had students complete the survey online, as we did not have another in-class meeting, and offered a point of extra-credit on the exam for doing so).  Based on the first two sets of responses, I updated the list of recommended strategies after the last in-class exam (adding three strategies, and removing one) based on the strategies that were most consistently associated with exam performance. I distributed a new handout (PDF available here), with the 11 recommended strategies, and emphasized the use of these strategies as my recommended approach to studying for our final exam. And, I recommended that these strategies may be beneficial in general, as students study for final exams in other courses.

After the last in-class exam, my students’ reports of their use of the exam strategies were similar overall (after both exams, students reported more use of the strategies that I recommended, and less use of the ones I did not recommend) and there was no significant change overall between the first and last in-class exam.

However, I was pleased to see that for the recommended (targeted) strategies, reported use of the strategies correlated positively with performance on the last in-class exam and the final. In contrast, for the strategies that were not recommended (non-targeted), reported use of the strategies was not significantly correlated (and if anything, was negatively correlated) with performance on the last in-class exam and the final.

Also, for the recommended (targeted) strategies, students who had done poorly on the first exam reported a significantly greater increase in their use of these strategies, compared to students who had done well on the first exam (and who tended to decrease in their use of the strategies). For the strategies that I did not recommend (non-targeted), there were no differences in how each of these groups of students reported changing their study strategies.  After the final exam, the use of the updated targeted and non-targeted strategies was stable overall, and changes in the reported use of each group of strategies did not differ between students who did well and students who did poorly.

Overall, these results indicated that there were a set of exam study strategies that positively correlated with exam performance, and some evidence that students increased in their use of the recommended strategies. But, does adopting the recommended strategies actually improve course performance?

To get at this question, I conducted a set of regression analyses to determine if changes in the use of the targeted and non-targeted strategies were related to better exam performance. My analyses were very basic, and while I don’t think the details are relevant to this post, I’d be happy to discuss them if you are interested! Still, the basic purpose was to test if changes in the use of the study strategies were related to performance on the final exam (after controlling for other factors, such as performance on the first exam).

In the analysis I am summarizing below, I examined performance on the final exam, and looked at how final exam scores were related to:

  • performance on the first exam,
  • reported use of the targeted and non-targeted strategies at the time of the first exam, and
  • change in the reported use of the targeted and non-targeted strategies between the first exam and the final.

When looking at final exam performance, I found that students who did better on the final exam also (in decreasing order of importance):

  1. Had better scores on the first exam.
  2. Reported more frequent use initially (at the time of the first exam) of the strategies that were recommended.
    1. Note: this relationship is not surprising, as this was the reason the strategies were selected initially – because they were reported by students who did well on exam 1, and those students also tended to do well on the final.
  3. Reported a decreased use (between the first exam and the final) of strategies that were not recommended (non-targeted).
  4. Tended to report an increased use (between the first exam and the final) of strategies that were recommended.
  5. Were somewhat likely to report less frequent use initially (at the time of the first exam) of the strategies that were not recommended.

While my attempt to encourage the use of effective study strategies was only correlational (and I have no control, or comparison, group to examine), I find these results encouraging. As is typical, students who did well on my final exams were those who also did well initially. And, students who do well tend to report the use of exam study strategies that are different from those who do poorly (consistent with the findings of Drs. Amanda Sebesta, and Elena-Bray Speth).

But, after I made a significant effort across the semester to target a specific set of strategies (that were correlated with better performance of my students), students who increased in their use of the recommended strategies and decreased in their use of the other strategies performed better on the final exam.

In the future, I plan to continue the use of this activity in my larger courses, and I would like to increase the adoption of the recommended strategies by students who struggle initially in the course, and help all of my students maintain their use of these strategies across the semester. I will also be interested to see if in future classes, the same list of strategies emerges as the best predictor of student success.

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