Students Can Learn to Make Better Use of Study Resources


Concern about how students study is widespread. Considerable research has shown that students don’t make use of strategies known to enhance exam performance, long-term retention, and other key learning indicators. The answer has been to provide student with good study resources. But as this research team noted, providing students with study resources doesn’t guarantee that they will make use of those resources.

The study

Chen, P., Chavez, O., Ong, D. C., & Gunderson, B. (2017). Strategic resource use for learning: A self-administered intervention that guides self-reflection on effective resource use enhances academic performance. Psychological Science, 28(6), 774–785. doi:0.1177/0956797617696456

The research questions

  • The overarching question: “How can we help people to regulate learning more effectively?” (p. 774).
  • The specific question: Would an experimental intervention that specifically addresses the use of study strategy resources causally contribute to performance?

Interesting background information

Results from other research efforts have identified a number of ways students can be taught self-regulatory skills, such as goal setting and organizing class materials. Typically, these efforts have involved teaching students the desired skills. Could students learn to make better use of study resources on their own?

The study cohort

This study was conducted twice in different sections of an introductory statistics course, which was a prerequisite for a number of social science, natural science, premed, and business majors. In each of the two studies, there were slightly fewer than 200 students, divided randomly between a control and an experimental treatment.

Methodology (a succinct summary)

Students in both the control and treatment groups completed several pre- and post-exam surveys for which they received extra credit. The experimental intervention involved a Strategic Resource Use exercise that prompted students to consider the exam format, identify which resources would be most useful in their exam preparation, explain why they thought those resources would be useful, and then describe how they planned to use the resources. The exercise contained a checklist of resources that included things like lecture notes, practice exam questions, peer discussions, private tutoring, textbook reading, and instructor office hours. This online exercise was available seven to 10 days before the exam. Students in the control group received a regular reminder that the exam was approaching and to begin studying for it. Multiple statistical analyses explored and compared effects of these treatments.

Key findings

  • The brief, self-administered intervention that guided students to make strategic use of study resources “had a significant impact on their grades. Across two studies our intervention produced a difference of one-third of a letter grade on average” (p. 778).
  • Students in the experimental treatment also experienced some psychological benefits. They were less anxious about the exams and perceived they had greater control over how they performed on the exam.
  • The researchers believe that the exercise promoted self-reflection, causing students think more thoroughly about the resources they ought to use and how they should use those resources, which influenced how they studied.

Cautions and caveats

First, the study did not measure whether students used the resources as planned or whether the exercise caused them to study. The improved grades could be taken as indicative, but actual use of the study strategies was not measured. Second, intervention was used in one course. How well it might work in other kinds of courses is not known.

Practical implications (what you might do about the findings)

Students completed the Strategic Resource Use exercise online on their own. The results offer evidence that given carefully developed resources, students can be guided to explore how they might study more effectively. Students decided which resources they should use, provided their reasoning and plans for using the strategies. All of this took place without teacher facilitation, making an approach like this useful in large courses and in online learning environments.

The research also shows that getting students focused on how they study builds confidence. It makes clear the impact of exam preparation on exam performance and gives student the study resources they need to better their chance of improved exam scores. Preparing a study game plan with some opportunities to discuss options and then possible revisions based on exam performance might garner some of these same benefits.

Related research

Dang, N. V., Chiang, J. C., Brown, H. M., & McDonald, K. K. (2018). Curricular activities that promote cognitive skills impact lower-performing students in an introductory biology course. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 19(1). doi:10.1128/jmbe.v19i1.1324

  • In this study, researchers used three curricular interventions to promote metacognitive skills development in an introductory biology course. Students completed pre-lecture assignments; participated in collaborative group work (discussions and group quizzes); and completed an exam review assignment in which they corrected missed questions, diagnosed reasons for their mistakes, and explored their study strategies. From the abstract: “Our findings suggest that assignments designed to promote metacognition can have an impact on students over the course of one semester and may provide the greatest benefits to lower-performing students.”