Improving Study Habits and Test Scores with a “Learning How to Learn” Assignment
Posted June 27, 2018
By Carolyn Brown-Kramer
A student ambushed me as I returned from the drinking fountain. “Hey professor,” he began, “I want to talk to you about my test grade.” He explained how carefully he had read and reread the assigned chapters, showed off his heavily highlighted textbook, and demonstrated his memory for the definitions on his flash cards. “I studied for twelve hours. How could I have gotten a D?” he finally concluded.
In reply to this all-too-common complaint, I asked, “What do you think about when you study?” He looked confused. I continued: “Do you ever think about how the content is related to other material or to your own life? Do you draw your own diagrams or make your own detailed outlines? Do you practice answering or writing test questions before you go in to take the test?”
The student was flummoxed. Why, he reasoned, would he need to do these things when rereading, highlighting, and flash cards had gotten him through high school just fine?
For years I’ve been trying to tell students about better learning strategies than the ones they’re in the habit of using. There are well-established guidelines for more effective strategies (practice testing, distributed practice, self-explanation, interleaving) and less effective strategies (summarizing, highlighting or underlining, rereading; Bartoszewski & Gurung, 2015; Dunlosky et al., 2013).
But as it turns out, there are two problems with this “tell them what they need to know” approach. First, it’s hard to reach the students who are most in need of a study habit tune-up, because relatively few of them come to see their instructors for help. (Check out Christie Cathey’s blog post for a neat way to address this issue: http://noba.to/fwevqhy7.) Second, those who do come in often seem to want a simple trick to fix the problem—something like, “Just read your book one more time” or “More flashcards!” In other words, just because students are introduced to better practices it doesn’t mean they will adopt them (Balch, 2001). If my suggested methods don’t meet their initial, low-effort expectations, they are likely to reject those suggestions and continue on with their current, ineffective strategies.
My Previous Attempts
I started trying to address students’ problematic study behaviors a few years ago. Each semester I teach Introduction to Psychology, I take time in the first week to introduce students to Stephen Chew’s excellent “How to get the most out of studying” YouTube video series). In class, we complete a version of Chew’s levels-of-processing demonstration (from video part 2 of 5) and follow up by watching the “Cognitive principles for optimizing learning” video (part 3 of 5). Students discuss the demonstration and video, we talk through it as a class, and the content is represented on the first exam to increase accountability and attention. I find that while many students can answer questions correctly about why spaced studying works and highlighting doesn’t, they often don’t take the next step of applying better learning strategies to themselves—hence the frequent conversations with students like the one above.
I also post a 1-page document on my course website called “How to be successful in this class” (available at https://drive.google.com/open?id=1wEzOtJzrOEAWG_7mjSjjxzOe8HK-IveK). The document presents evidence-based recommendations for increasing processing depth, spacing studying, self-testing effectively, and more. Sadly, many of my students who really need help with their study habits ignore this helpful tool.
In the fall of 2017, I decided to try a more in-depth way to show them. And it actually worked.
What I Did and Why I Did It
I implemented a learning strategy intervention sneakily disguised as a term paper assignment in my Introduction to Psychology class. I had four goals:
1. To increase students’ knowledge of psychological research methodologies via reading and writing about an empirical research article, as they always do in this class;
2. To improve students’ study habits via metacognition;
3. To improve students’ performance in the class as a result of their improved study habits; and
4. To do all of this without increasing the grading load—an important consideration for a class of 400-plus students.
I already had a paper assignment in which students read an empirical psychological research article and wrote a short paper summarizing and analyzing its methodology. In fall of 2017, all students read an empirical research article about two studies that tested a particular learning strategy. They then wrote a paper doing the same methodological analysis and critique as I used in previous semesters, and added a brief commentary on how they could apply the learning strategy to their own life.
Here’s the catch: There were actually four different empirical research articles, each covering a different learning strategy. Students were randomly assigned to read and write about one of the four articles. This allowed me to compare the effects of the assignment on students’ study behaviors and performance across the articles. All articles were matched for length, difficulty, and research design. The learning strategies included:
- Distributed practice (Seabrook, Brown, & Solity, 2005, experiments 2 & 3)
- Rereading (Rawson & Kintsch, 2005)
- Repeated testing (i.e., the testing effect; McDaniel et al., 2011)
- Imagery use (Schmeck et al., 2014)
Again, the idea was to see if getting students to read an entire research article about a learning strategy, making them think about the evidence underlying the strategy, and having them consider how it applies to themselves would convince them to change their studying behavior more effectively than the tactics I’d tried in the past.
Did It Work?
In a word, yes.
Because the paper assignment still focused on research methodology, as it always had, it met goal 1. Because it involved the addition of only one short section on how students could apply the learning strategy to their own life, it met goal 4. The big questions were whether it could meet goals 2 and 3.
I surveyed students at the beginning and again at the end of the semester about their learning strategies (based on Bartoszewski & Gurung, 2015). Students used more high-utility practices (practice testing, self-explanation, interleaving, and use of keywords) and fewer low-utility practices (underlining/highlighting, summarizing, and rereading) at the end of the semester than at the beginning. Goal 2: Met.
Interestingly, there wasn’t much difference among groups in students’ use of the learning strategy they had been assigned to read about. For instance, students who read the article about the benefits of self-testing increased their use of self-testing and spaced practice, and also decreased their use of underlining/highlighting and rereading… but so did students who read the other three articles.
This suggests that, rather than making students reconsider their use of a particular study habit, the assignment primarily strengthened their metacognition about all their study habits—good and bad—and reminded them about how they should be studying overall.
What about actual performance in the course? If students use better learning strategies as they complete course work and study, they should achieve better scores on exams. And that’s exactly what I found.
In order to see whether the new version of the paper assignment improved student performance, I kept the course as similar as possible to the previous fall semester— the same textbook, lectures, exams, attendance requirements, enrollment, and student characteristics—and varied only this one assignment. I compared student performance on the four exams from fall 2016 (control semester) to fall 2017 (experimental semester) when I introduced the learning strategies variation on the paper assignment.
Students were assigned the articles halfway through the semester in both courses. Scores on the first two exams—before the articles were assigned—were equivalent across semesters. Scores diverged on the third and fourth exams, however. Students in the experimental semester scored 3.7 percentage points higher on exam 3, and 2.6 percentage points higher on exam 4, compared to students in the control semester.
Perhaps more impressively, students in the experimental semester earned about 1/3 of a letter grade higher—an average of 80.9% (B-) in the experimental semester versus 78.9% (C+) in the control semester. The improvement was especially strong among underperforming students—the percentage of students earning Ds or Fs in the course dropped from 22% in the control semester to 15% in the experimental semester. I consider that a win for goal 3.
What about differences across learning strategy article conditions?
I compared exam scores across groups. Students who read about repeated testing did the best on average, beating the previous semester’s exam 3 and 4 scores by 7% and 4%, respectively. Students who read the article about distributed practice did the worst on average, performing no better than the previous semester’s students on exams 3 and 4.
Not surprisingly, the same pattern held for overall course grades: Students in the repeated testing condition did the best, earning about 5.5 percentage points higher overall (B vs. C+) compared to the previous semester. Students in the distributed practice condition did the worst, earning about 1 percentage point lower overall than those in the previous semester.
Surprises, Cautions, and Recommendations
A pretty easy tweak to the term paper assignment I’d been using for years actually worked. By substituting the research articles I had used in the past with articles about learning strategies, and by adding a short application section to the paper assignment, not only were students still learning about research methodology, but they were also gaining better study skills and earning higher grades on exams and in the course overall. There were, however, some surprises and bumps along the way.
As mentioned above, students’ study habits improved pretty much across the board, regardless of which article they read. It seems that thinking hard about learning strategies encourages students to improve their studying, even if they don’t adopt the particular strategy they’ve been reading about.
It might be that reading in depth about certain learning strategies for their individual assignment influenced students to make better use of other strategies from Chew’s videos or the “How to be successful in this class” document. Introducing these resources early and then directing students back to them mid-semester as they reconsidered their study habits was very effective for my students.
There are two important caveats I should mention based on my experience with this assignment. First, despite my efforts to select articles that were well matched on length and difficulty, students really struggled with the article on distributed practice (Seabrook et al., 2005). This article wasn’t as novice-friendly as the others because it was more methodologically complex and introduced several new operational definitions that students weren’t familiar with. Many students came away frustrated and confused by distributed practice because they misunderstood the samples and methodologies in the article—for instance, that distributed practice pertains only to young children, it can only be used in a laboratory setting, or it includes only studying in three 2-minute chunks throughout the day. Students who read the other three articles had a much stronger grasp on both the methodologies and the take-home messages of what they had read.
The second caveat is that my student evaluations of teaching (SETs) took a small but substantial hit in the semester I implemented this project. Compared to the control semester, my summary evaluations dropped about 1/3 of a point on a 7-point scale. This could be a concern for new faculty members or those whose departments or institutions scrutinize every small fluctuation in SETs. In my opinion, having slightly less happy students is a reasonable price to pay for a 2% improvement in overall course grades, and a 7% drop in the number of students earning Ds and Fs. In the future, I will try to manage student expectations and anxiety by talking about how I will grade fairly and consistently across articles, posting the rubric earlier in the semester, and breaking the assignment into smaller pieces so students have a strong understanding of their article before writing the paper.
Here are some suggestions based on my experience, which hopefully can help save you a lot of hassle as you encourage the adoption of high-utility learning strategies in your own classes:
- Select one article with the greatest benefit, and have all students read it. Of the four articles I tested, I recommend Mark McDaniel and colleagues’ 2011 article on repeated testing. It produced the greatest benefit in terms of student exam and overall course performance, and is probably the most readable for first-year undergraduates. Choosing just one article will also curtail student concerns about grading fairness and consistency.
- Talk about learning strategies early and often. My students respond positively to Stephen Chew’s videos, but often forget about them by the second exam. Return to the topic of learning strategies periodically, and get students to discuss why some study habits are better than others. You can easily incorporate this into your Intro Psych course material by talking about principles of human memory, reinforcement and punishment, and even belief perseverance (e.g., students’ persistent belief in the importance of matching their “learning style” with how a class is taught).
- Incorporate self-reflection and planning. We all learn by making information self-relevant. By having students reflect on their current versus ideal learning strategies, and by having them make explicit plans for implementing high-utility strategies, they are much more likely to use what they’ve learned rather than treat it as just another academic paper. You can do this as part of a formal assignment, or as a journal or group discussion—whatever gets them thinking about what they do now, how they can do it better, and why they’d want to change.
High-utility learning strategies are valuable tools. As experts in learning, it’s our job to help students like the young man who ambushed me in the hallway—the one with the rereading, highlighting, and flash card habit—learn to use those more effective tools themselves.
Dr. Carolyn Brown-Kramer is an Assistant Professor of Practice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A social psychologist by training, she teaches courses in introductory psychology, social psychology, advanced social psychology, and motivation and emotion. Outside the classroom, she loves food, music, reading, and spending time with her spouse and two young children. She is always on the lookout for good audiobook suggestions.