Study Guides and Study Groups

group study session
Most college faculty are terribly well-intentioned. We care about student success. The material in our courses is important; we want students to learn it. And so, we go out of our way, bend over backwards, and give students everything they need to do well in the course. If it looks like our students don’t know what or how to study for the exam, we respond with carefully prepared, detailed study guides and long lists of study questions for every chapter. But here’s the question: Who stands to benefit the most from the preparation of study guide material? The teacher who knows the material and knows how to make a good study guide? Or students who must interact with the material in order to make a useful guide and who need to learn how to organize content in ways that expedite learning? We’d serve our students better by contributing to the process, rather than doing the work they should be doing. We can prepare a set of guidelines that delineate the features of useful study guides and let them pull it all together. We can facilitate an in-class or online discussion during which students identify the features they’d find most helpful. We can share some good and not-so-good examples of study guide material.

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Most college faculty are terribly well-intentioned. We care about student success. The material in our courses is important; we want students to learn it. And so, we go out of our way, bend over backwards, and give students everything they need to do well in the course. If it looks like our students don’t know what or how to study for the exam, we respond with carefully prepared, detailed study guides and long lists of study questions for every chapter. But here’s the question: Who stands to benefit the most from the preparation of study guide material? The teacher who knows the material and knows how to make a good study guide? Or students who must interact with the material in order to make a useful guide and who need to learn how to organize content in ways that expedite learning? We’d serve our students better by contributing to the process, rather than doing the work they should be doing. We can prepare a set of guidelines that delineate the features of useful study guides and let them pull it all together. We can facilitate an in-class or online discussion during which students identify the features they’d find most helpful. We can share some good and not-so-good examples of study guide material. Should students get credit for preparing study guides? They could. Students have been known to expend a good deal of effort for a trivial number of points. I used to have my students prepare study guides on text content they needed to know for the exam but that wasn’t covered in class. They did this in groups with each group assigned a different chunk of material. I distributed each group’s study guide material to the rest of the class, and after the exam the groups provided feedback and graded the study guides. Initially, I had provided the grades until I discovered that feedback and assessment from peers motivated students to work significantly harder on the guides they prepared for the next exam. What makes a study guide useful? It really depends on course content, but here are some features that make study guides useful. How to use student-led study groups Most teachers endorse study groups. We correctly believe that if students meet regularly as a group and use good study strategies, they will learn better and improve their exam scores. But those learning benefits aren’t accrued automatically.  And while there’s a plethora of research documenting that students can learn from and with each other, most teachers don’t have time to organize or supervise study groups. But as we explored above with study guides, teachers don’t have to be the ones in charge of study groups. Why not let students run their own groups? It just takes a few ground rules and some occasional guidance on the part of the professor. Many years ago, H. J. Robinson (Teaching Professor, May 1991) described an approach to study groups that divests teachers of most of the responsibilities for managing them. He suggests teachers help students organize and run their own study groups.  Here’s an adapted version of the guidelines he proposed. Teachers do need to provide some guidance to these study groups—students aren’t born knowing how to study effectively with others. That helpful advice can be provided with a handout, a podcast recorded by a professional from the learning center, or an in-class or online discussion. Teachers can also make study resources available; problem sets, possible test questions, or other content-related materials that can help groups study more efficiently and effectively.