For our students, time is always of the essence. Class time fills their days, followed by any club activities, and then there’s finally time to study after that. Despite this time crunch, student expectations remain the same. This is not to say these are unfair expectations; it’s just the fast-paced nature of many educational programs…especially in professional schools.
The problem with this expected scheduled is that many students don’t necessarily know how to use the study time they do have effectively. Therein lies the key question: how do we get our students to use their time outside of the classroom most effectively to improve their retention of content and prepare for assessments? Basically, what information can we supply to our students to make them use their time economically?
If we’re going to expect students to study (as I’m sure all of us do), and we want to have a positive impact on student outcomes, we should provide students with the necessary information to maximize their time spent learning content outside of class. With the amount of content each course delivers to students, it can be difficult to focus on key information.
Key information? Let’s take a step back and identify what we mean by that. For the sake of this process, key information is not learning objectives or course goals. Nor is it the information you bold or star on your PowerPoint slides. Key information is each content area in which individual students specifically struggle. It’s great to highlight the high-yield content through avenues such as learning objectives and bolding, but to truly allow students to use their study time effectively, we need to tell them which of those content areas they need to specifically improve upon.
Steps one and two are complete—we have recognized the need to help streamline student study time, and we know which type of information to highlight for our students. Now, it’s time for action. Let’s handle this in a step-by-step format:
- Create your questions and tag them to the topics that provide the information needed to direct student studying (those important content areas that make up each exam). Make sure to identify those areas that are broad enough to include several questions while also being focused enough to provide students valuable feedback. For example, while tagging items to your learning objectives is good practice, it is unlikely that you will have enough items in each of those categories to provide any useful data. If students see that they answered only 1 out of 2 questions correctly in a given category, that is not enough statistical evidence to affect their studying. However, if we can tell students that they answered only 3 out of 12 questions correctly, they can see a trend there and focus on improving their knowledge in that category.
- After the assessment, distribute the categorized results to students. With the fast-paced nature of many curricula, it is very important to do this as quickly as possible after the end of the assessment. While allowing students to review each exam item as part of an exam review is important, they are typically unable to see any trends in their performance. Each question is its own entity that has students trying to memorize the answer. By providing categorical data directly after the assessment, students can see content areas in which they struggle and create a study plan. This means that instead of memorizing facts, students can genuinely study the whole range of content in which they’re struggling. This doesn’t just have to be content, though; questions can be categorized by question types as well. For example, if you are in a health professions program, you can tag items to categories, indicating items are clinical cases/vignettes that require problem-solving abilities. If students struggle on these items (which many do), we can inform them how to look at content too. In addition to learning the content areas in which they struggle, students will now know they need to improve their ability to apply what they know to solve clinical problems.
- Students create their study plans. While allowing students opportunities to self-assess and reflect is important to the process of teaching them to be lifelong learners, they don’t have to complete this process alone. The same performance data that is shared with individual students can also be made available to faculty and academic advisers. Therefore, students can receive guidance on how to analyze their performance and put a plan into action.
- Reevaluate student performance after each exam. Making a focused study plan is only the beginning. After each exam, students should be strongly encouraged to continuously reevaluate their performance and alter their study plans accordingly. It is key to make sure students do not forget the content they’re doing well on during this process. While their study plans should be targeted at the content with their lowest scores, they should not bypass their strong content areas altogether.
The economical student is the successful student—using study time effectively is a simple way to improve upon content areas of weakness. By following the steps outlined above, we absolutely can provide our students with the information that allows them to do exactly that—study most efficiently. We may not be able to reduce expectations or the overall amount of content they need to learn, but we can give students what they need to put themselves in the best position for academic success. At the end of the day, that’s what teaching is all about.