Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Different Approach to "Study Habits"

Is the art of studying broken?  I think so.  It is my contention that what students view as studying is not conducive to learning and certainly doesn’t train them to master what they are trying to learn.  They therefore put off studying because they don’t know why they are studying and they find studying boring.  To fix the issue requires a redefinition of studying that will change student habits and oblige educators to alter aspects of their expectations.

Have you ever heard a statement similar to “I can’t tonight, I have to study for my exam tomorrow.”?  I have.  In fact, I said that far too often as a student.  To me, studying the night before the exam was the way to go, because I had seen that format of learning displayed on TV, by my peers, and expected of me by my teachers.

The problem is that in no other endeavor is this methodology expected or realistic.  For example, would you get ready for the track meet by running 100 miles the day before, to ensure you have endurance?  Or, would you finally open that trombone case the night before the concert and spend 6 hours trying to master the music?  No, it sounds ridiculous for any sport or activity to not practice daily (or close to it).  So, why is it that we educators haven’t fixed the acceptable behavior of ‘studying’ the night before an exam?

It Begins with a Definition

If asked to define how they study, my students routinely spit out a list of actions they complete:  read the book, rewrite the notes from class, try the problems in the book, try homework problems, etc.  While these and other actions are a part of the process of studying, they do not represent the when and why a student should study.  So, let’s give students a simple and direct definition of studying that will guide them to become better learners.

Studying is the action or actions taken by a student before the next class to ensure the student understands and can apply the material from the most recent class.

Notice that the above definition does not tell the student how to study, but rather when they should study, what they should study and the goal of that studying is.  Different students will accomplish the goal using different actions (read the book, complete the homework problems, etc).  

Since students lead such digitized lives (mentioned here), they appreciate the learning in small chunks

I have used this definition with my students for the past 3 years.  Of those that took the definition to heart, all returned to me mentioning how much more interesting school had become and that they were studying less to get better results. 

Not Just A Change for Students

If we are to ask our students to change their study habits, then some aspects of our course must be altered to help them accomplish the goal of studying.  A few important changes are listed below.
  1. Update that syllabus:  Describe the study process in your syllabus more formally.  Give a concrete example that may apply to the first few days.
  2. Give small and targeted reading assignments:  Don’t assign an entire chapter if you are not going to cover the entire chapter by tomorrow.  Instead, tell them to read certain pages from the chapter.
  3. List appropriate problems to attempt:  It’s so easy to list all the important problems or questions from the end of the chapter.  But, we want a targeted list of problems/questions that are about the recent material, so make a list of those problems and post it daily.
  4.  Feedback is necessary:  If the objective of studying is to approach mastery of a small chunk of material, give the students a way to test their mastery.  Write special “concept check” questions or ensure they have a few worked out examples to compare their work to.
  5. Adjust your segue:  Start the day with a review question or discussion question for five minutes.  Let the class talk out what they should have learned.  On occasion, give them an easy quiz over the material…easy for anyone who studied, that is.  A proper segue will connect the ‘just learned’ with older material, make necessary the new material today, and will build connections to the big picture of the section, chapter or course.
  6. Train them early:  To ensure that the students understand the new study paradigm, we need to create a training regiment that builds proper study habits.  Begin by explaining the vision of studying.  Then, be diligent in your reminders (end of class, on class website or LMS, via email, etc) to look at the material before the next class.  Build the expectation that understanding of the past material is mandatory, not voluntary.
  7. Practice makes perfect:  If your students have been studying within the new paradigm, it makes sense that preparing for the exam is completely different.  Do not remind them to “study for the exam” because they have already studied.  Instead, urge them to “review” and “practice” for the exam.

We as instructors must take charge in redefining ‘how to study’.  Why not start this fall?  And please, let me know what you think of the updated definition presented above.  


  1. Dr Z. At what age do you recommend using this approach in training a child to study?

    1. In my humble opinion, SearchingDad, you can start training study habits early. Success in the next class and on assessments will be the reward for your student. It would be great if you, the parent, stressed that what we learn today is the foundation for learning more diverse and complicated material later. Without a solid foundation, the learning is a house of cards rather than a poured concrete bunker of knowledge.


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