A guide to study guides

Ah, spring: when a student’s mind turns to … final exams. Sure signs of the semester’s end include the first chirps of students’ asking if they can have a study guide.

Recently, Ayesha Ray asked the CELT Facebook group how its members dealt with these requests. Ayesha expressed concern that students were glad to have study guides but were not using them effectively. I’ve encountered a similar conundrum: I usually give students the exam questions outright, but too many students still fail.

Ayesha’s question elicited a range of responses, but they all converged around the idea that study guides (or review sheets) and review sessions are most effective when they prod students to take responsibility for their studying. That’s right: good old active learning seems to be the key to successful review sheets and sessions.

Julie Belanger offered a thorough picture of her review sheets and review sessions, which clearly emphasize active learning and assessing students’ knowledge (analogous to a “minute paper” or “clearest / muddiest point” question):

I always give my Gen Chem students an “outline” of what we covered that is “fair game” for the exam. Truthfully, it really is just a copy of the table of contents from the book chapters, with a few added bullet points. I give it out about a week before the exam, along with a small survey that asks two questions: 1) name two concepts you are comfortable with, and 2) Name two concepts you would like review on. There is also an open-ended “questions/comments/concerns” space. I collect the surveys and use them to create some additional review questions. I also dedicate an entire class before the exam to review of the areas where there is the biggest concerns. I have received SO much positive feedback for this from my students.

For Julie, this approach seemed to make a difference in how much responsibility the students took for their studying:

I was also surprised when I had the first review session, I asked them if they wanted to watch me work a problem on the board, or if I should give them a problem to work then we go over the answer… they unanimously chose the second option.

Jennifer McClinton-Temple similarly emphasizes students taking ownership of the review material, even as she presents that material to them:

I do not give a review sheet. I tell them what will be on the test and make them write it down themselves. I always think of learning in grad school about how the act of writing engages the brain in a way that merely reading does not–so I make them make their own study guides.

This approach has some support in literature on exam preparation. Kyong-Hee M. Lee, in an article in Assessment Update, uses student-generated questions and group presentations in review sessions for his intro-level math courses. Lee has found that students

enjoy presenting their group work and feel more comfortable with verbalizing their mathematical ideas, thoughts, or problem-solving methods to the class and the instructor. (8)

This strikes me as a goal not just of a good review session but also of a good course. In fact, all of the examples here seem to operate very continuously with modes of instruction that get used in courses during the semester. Why should the goals or even the format of a course change just because the course is almost over?

Somewhere, once, I read an anecdote about a student who, exasperated by his or her classmates’ demands for a study guide, held up a notebook and said, “This is the study guide!” I love that answer, because it acknowledges that an entire course cannot be retaught in 50 minutes. It puts the responsibility for making sense of the material right where it belongs: on the students themselves.

That does not mean, however, that offering a study guide lets students off the hook. We want our students to succeed, and it may take some prodding to get them to move in the right direction at the end of a course. But if the best instruction during the preceding 14 weeks took the form of active learning that was set up and guided by the instructor, why should that change during exam week? If a study guide actually does guide students to study hard on their own, no matter the format that study takes, then it is doing its job.

Do you employ study guides or review sessions prior to exams? If so, what form do they take? If not, why not?

Reference: Lee, Kyong-Hee M. 2006. “Using Exam Review Sessions as an Opportunity for Learning, Teaching, and Assessment.” Assessment Update 18, no. 5: 7-8.


3 responses to “A guide to study guides

  1. Steven Sweeney

    In my introductory physics classes and my physics for el.ed. majors class, I tend to provide study guides similar to Julie’s, though without the survey to collect. Students get a list of fair-game topics along with a selection of extra problems or conceptual questions to work on. I’ve found that students seem to get more from these study guides when I hold back on solutions for 2-3 days from the time the extra questions go out. This forces them to make an attempt either alone or with classmates so that when it comes time for the review session, they will have a good idea of what topics they are most comfortable with and which they need some more clarification on. I’ve gotten good reviews on this practice in the past, and for the most part, it seems that the students making the most effort prior to solutions being posted tend to score better on subsequent exams. (I’m not making any causal claims here, just correlation.)

  2. Jeremy Simington

    This is the first year I started doing review sessions with first-year students. Prior to the review session I have them do a muddiest point based on all the material covered since the last exam. Their responses are what I cover in the review session but I’ll also cover any other items that they bring up at the session. The review session occurs outside of class (my choice so that I don’t take up class time doing it) in the evening and lasts no more than 1 hour. I do not create a review sheet/guide. I don’t know if this is making a difference in performance on exams. I’m pleased with the number of students who show up for the review and I feel good about doing the sessions, so I will keep doing them next year.

  3. I typically don’t use study guides. However, when I do (for example, when I teach HR/Employment Law and there are lots and lots of laws and cases) I write the study guide in the form of questions rather than just giving them a list of topics. This seems to help them focus.