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The notion of "Study Guide" was unknown to me before moving to the US (I don't think I was ever given one during my studies in France).

I believe that the goal of a study guide is three-fold:

  1. To list all the topic that will be on the exam,
  2. To provide some hints to the students as to how to revise,
  3. To help them deal with their stress.

In the case where everything that was covered so far will potentially be on the exam, I feel like students shouldn't need one: they should be able to list all the topics by going through their notes (or through my detailed syllabus), they need to learn how to revise on their own (it is difficult to have a "general recipe" that works for everyone), and they need to learn how to deal with their stress on their own (I'm talking about college students).

Of course, during class, I gave them plenty of advises, examples, problems, partial feedback, and highlighted what the key ideas and critical topics are. They had multiple short tests (quizzes) and projects, and I went over them in class. I tried to help them assess how well they know the content of the course during class, and I am open to meeting them. I know that teaching is about repetition, but listing this information once more doesn't seem so useful to me.

Am I overlooking one aspect that make study guide really critical to students? What is your personal practice?

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Goal-oriented action

Part of this really depends on your goals in administering the exam. If your goal is the traditional idea of creating a nice bell-curve to rank students, having a study guide makes very little sense. You can separate the wheat from the chaff without providing any assistance to the students prior to the test.

However, if you want to utilize the tremendous cognitive benefits of testing to actively help your students learn, then you're looking at a whole different set of priorities. There is a lot of research on the benefits of testing in the learning process. Unfortunately, I don't have access to my bookshelf right now, but the incredible book How People Learn summarizes the results very nicely.1

How do tests help?

Basically, tests accomplish two things that really help us to learn. First, there is retrieval practice, which is simply giving the brain a chance to practice holding on to (and recalling) information. The second is emotional: by giving the information heightened emotional importance, we increase our chances of actually encoding it.

So, where does a study guide fit in? Having a list of topics isn't as useful as you might think for an examination. If I tell you that you're going to have an examination on "Operating Systems", there's not a lot to go on. You might get to the exam and find questions about threading, or disk management, or you might find questions about how to transfer photographs between an iPhone and a Linux box. There's little to focus your studies, and you may find that you have expended a great deal of effort studying things that your teacher does not consider to be the core, central ideas of the course.

My example is over-the-top, but this is done purposefully to illustrate the problem. Your subtopics may not seem as broad as "Operating Systems", but in a field of effectively infinite knowledge, you are presuming that students have gleaned what the important core ideas are for your class from readings and from listening to you during your lectures. For some kids this will work.

But what about the kid who missed something? Perhaps they didn't understand something really fundamental about one of the sub-topics. Or perhaps they got sick and missed a class. Or perhaps they've just forgotten some things thoroughly enough that they really can't recall what the important ideas were.

Creating a good guide

A study guide is your chance to give some very gentle guidance. Take your syllabus, and write a sentence or two for each topic that starts with, "Make sure you understand ..." or "You should be able to ..." or "The most important idea here is ...".

This is a relatively easy task, but even this small amount of guidance will help your students to focus their studies on the most important ideas of your course.

You can actually go a lot further with this effort if you want to, and there are good reasons to consider putting a lot of effort into the guide. Your efforts here can have an outsized impact on your students. This is what they will study, so what you put here is what your students are likely to remember when they leave your classroom for good.


1 - All I could find online were a few articles about single studies here and there. This is probably the best I can do for now.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer. My tests are indeed designed to help my students learn, and I know their importance. Re-phrasing my syllabus by pre-fixing every item on a list by "Make sure you understand ..." doesn't seem like a useful document to me, and it prevents my students to learn how to actually do that by themselves. The abundance of homeworks (that looks like what they will have at the exam) and the fact that I highlight the core ideas repeatedly, to me, makes that your answer suggest that study guide aren't so useful in this context. $\endgroup$ – Clément Mar 16 '18 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Clément That was information that I didn't have when I wrote the answer. Letting them know that the test questions will strongly resemble the homework questions could, indeed, serve the same purpose. In effect, you've already created a detailed study guide for the students. You just need to call their attention to it. $\endgroup$ – Ben I. Mar 16 '18 at 18:22
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In many ways the best study guide is one that the students themselves write. This can be done incrementally throughout the course and is useful even in the absence of exams. There are two ways to go about it, and you can, perhaps do both.

Each student should have a deck of index cards and they should carry a few around with them. They can take notes of important things on the cards as class proceeds, with only a few words on each card. At the end of each class period spend a moment or two asking members of the class to tell you the most important idea (or three) that came up during the class. The other students can update their cards as you confirm the big ideas. Then at the beginning of the next class ask for the most important ideas of the previous one, just as a quick review. See this post for more: Note-taking policy: laptops, or by hand?

The second idea is a wiki to which the class can contribute throughout the term. They can add "articles" to the wiki and you can edit them and/or comment on them. Mostly they will be questions from one student answered by another or by you, but it builds a record of the class written largely by them. So, the ideas for review come from them, not from you.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer. In my class, students take notes by hand, and the most important ideas are listed in the outline I give at the beginning of the class. I like the idea of the collaborative writing of notes, that I read as "publishing a study guide is indeed useless". $\endgroup$ – Clément Mar 16 '18 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ This sort of study guide helps with learning, but helps less with the reduction of student anxiety (unless the teacher carefully reads and "blesses" the study guide that the students produce.) $\endgroup$ – Ben I. Mar 16 '18 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, agreed. That was my intention @BenI. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Mar 16 '18 at 18:32
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I do study guides because some students may need to list the information just once more to get it. What if they hadn't had that opportunity? They may have missed it.

And, let's face it, do a lot of students, especially those at the high school level, have the self-discipline to go over the material once more unless they have a compelling reason? Even a test may not be a compelling reason. But a study guide is something I rarely have students completely ignore. They will turn it in, maybe not with all the correct answers, but they will give it a reasonable attempt (let me say as an aside here that I don't always grade for correctness, sometimes just completeness).

The students who don't need the study guide - who already have the material, or who have good study skills - will see it as a nuisance but will do it anyway without much effort. Those who can benefit from it are your real target.

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I have seen instructors call a wide range of documents "study guides". They have ranged from test "simulations" which are old tests with tweaked questions to a 1 page .txt print out with a bullet list of important topics to study.

I have also seen instructors spend an entire lecture on just test review mail but not hand out any documents.

In my experience as a student, the combination of some time, even ~30 min. in class as a test review is very helpful. The slides from that test review can serve as an effective study guide that students can access if they are inclined.

I agree with you that college students should have the personal responsibility to basically not require a separate study guide document. I hear complaints term after term that some test was not similar enough to the study guide, the guide was not clear enough, etc. Some students will definitely study to the test by way of only studying to the guide. Many don't even take many notes since the study guide is expected before a test.

I don't have an answer but that has been my experience with them.

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    $\begingroup$ That is a great point, @CT, that some students, if given a study guide, will study only the study guide! But isn't that better than if they didn't study at all? And it's interesting to hear you say you thought in-class reviews were helpful. I know some people feel very differently. Another question, perhaps? $\endgroup$ – Java Jive Mar 17 '18 at 0:17
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for that really interesting return of experience. I was definitely looking for that kind of feedback. $\endgroup$ – Clément Mar 18 '18 at 22:03
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    $\begingroup$ @JavaJive that's a good point and I'm not sure if the answer. IME, other students complain about classes not being hard enough -> they were not "forced" to study -> didn't retain course material -> upset because now they need to know the course material for either a subsequent class or an interview. My opinion is in CS especially, students must learn to find answers and form their own study plan. Study guides, etc train them to expect a study guide, get the grade, move on, without giving much thought on learning how to learn themselves. $\endgroup$ – red_squiggly_line Mar 28 '18 at 5:16

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