What makes a good study session?

As we come around to the last set of midterms, I spend a lot of talking chatting with students about how they are studying.  Although I feel like I’m modelling how to study while I teach and although I have worked a lot with my teaching assistants about training students in tutorial on giving examples of how to study well, I still hear the same things.  The average student who is studying will do the same things that are less effective for learning. Students report that they write down everything that they hear in lecture…..absolutely everything…..like a transcript. Then they report they rewrite the words again and again and again….verbatim. I hear about hours spent in the library. I hear about taking practice questions ad nauseam and it just breaks my heart.

I know that these methods don’t work well because I did the same things as an undergraduate and of course we have research that backs this up. At best, students are memorizing and hopefully recognizing words in order on an exam. But this is so much effort and really, so little return for the average student with an average short term memory capacity.  I have a terrible short term memory so I am definitely below the average which doesn’t make me less intelligent, just less capable of memorizing random facts.

So what does make a good study session? Hopefully it is the study session that makes your brain ache. The kind that you start to understand the material instead of just rewriting blindly with so little intake. Can you draw out and explain how an action potential works? Can you explain the electrical and mechanical events of the heart without even looking at your notes? If you can’t do that, then how you studied didn’t work.  Take some blank paper and start to draw out concepts and connect the information. When you don’t know some information then go and find it in your textbook or lecture notes. Don’t start rewriting your notes and drift off into daydream land wishing you were somewhere else. Work hard for 30-45 minutes and then give yourself a break.  I am not an expert, but I know what has worked for me and the results of a number of students changing their ways.  It sounds silly, but it should be clear that after you study for 30 minutes you should be able to say “Hey, I understand that now” and be able to explain the material to someone else. If you aren’t understanding the words while you are studying, you aren’t actually studying at all.  Its all about the quality and not about the quantity of time. 10 hours in the library isn’t always (usually never) a good estimate of what you now know.

I guess I assumed that I was the only person in the world who started undergraduate as an inefficient learner and it turns out, this seems to be a common theme. After reviewing the results of a survey from a course I taught last year, the majority of students report that the main way they study is rewriting notes and practicing multiple choice questions. Very few actually reported to employing methods that we know work well (drawing flow charts, comparing and contrasting related content, teaching someone else). If I accomplish one thing with any of my students this year, I hope I can teach them how to learn and not just provide them with more content. Learning how to learn is absolutely revolutionary and so empowering for the student who used to be the brightest at their high schools. Gaining that confidence again is so important. Please, please, please, if what you are doing isn’t working, seek out help to get this right before finals hit.

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