All too frequently, a student will arrive at my office, often quite frustrated and worn down, and say they just don't understand the material on the midterm even though they've studied for countless hours. I usually ask how they have "studied" and receive a blank look followed by some comment about reading over notes again and again.
This is when I inwardly cringe, for the student has taken a completely passive role in preparing and has not done any mathematics, wasting valuable preparation time.
His new strategy? Get rid of "studying" in favor of students' planning to learn the material via a set of active learning techniques:
This semester, I decided to be proactive and see if I could fix the problem before my students had spent hours "studying" instead of doing math. Before the midterms in my Calculus II and Ordinary Differential Equations classes, I instituted the Storm Study Challenge.
The challenge is simple: you are not allowed to use the word "study" in the lead up to the exam. Instead, you must phrase your plans in an active, concrete way. Asked what you are planning to do that evening, you might respond "I am going to work ten chain rule problems from the review section of my textbook and then look over some more problems to be sure I can always identify how I should break the functions up." By providing active goals, I hoped that students would be able to structure their time effectively. In addition, with such clear goals, they could better judge where they were in terms of preparedness.
Great technique, if you ask me. And Storm reports some positive results:
I must admit I rarely think about how students study in philosophy courses, but my own experience echoes Storm's. Students in my philosophy courses report "studying" a lot and not succeeding on exams, etc. But I'm curious to know what "studying" amounts to in their minds and whether this is a good use of their time. My suspicion is that many students approach studying philosophy in the way they might study history or a foreign language, by rote memorization. As a result, just as the typical Storm student "has not done any mathematics" to prepare, so too has my typical student (I'm speculating) "not done any philosophy" to prepare.
The effect was great. I had students coming to my office with specific questions on specific topics. We spent our time much more effectively, and I felt that at last my students were taking control and doing the "right" things to master the content in my courses.
On the midterms, I offered a bonus point for an honest answer to whether a student had accepted the challenge or not. In both courses, over half of the students did accept it or made an effort at it (although some students said yes, but their further comments suggested that they had missed the point of active studying). Out of curiosity, I compared how students who had accepted the challenge measured up to those who had not: there was a ten percent gap in achievement in both classes.While I cannot claim the Study Challenge really accounted for the difference, I suspect the Challenge provided motivated students with a better understanding of how to "study" for a math exam.
I don't give students a lot of counsel about how to study other than to de-emphasize memorization and just sit down and debate the issues and questions with other students. This is clearly closer to "doing" philosophy than memorizing claims, arguments, etc. And since what I evaluate my students on is not memorization (I nearly always allow students to use notes, texts, etc. to do their exams) but comprehension, analysis, reasoning, etc., this is a more prudent technique for them anyway.
But I'd be interested how we tell students to study philosophy and how they actually do it. To the students out there: How do you study philosophy, and what works? Instructors, what do you tell students who ask how to study the material? If you followed Storm's model, what would be your philosophy equivalents of Storm's "work ten chain problems" — the active learning they ought to practice in order to master the material?