Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Whatever you do, don't "study"!

I really loved Christopher Storm's response to learning how superficially his mathematics students "study" for exams:

Storm's situation:
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:

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 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.

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?


  1. I tend to give a set of essay questions or terms in advance, then select from that set for the exam. This lets them see the potential questions and figure out the answers (or, not -- but, then they have only themselves to blame).

    Once, before the list came out - I had them do small group discussions in class about what the possible terms may be... then figure out if they had the answers someplace etc.

  2. To me, the problems discussed here actually just point to the fact that exams are not a very good way of encouraging students to learn philosophy in the first place. Really, is there any reason to give exams instead of papers besides expediency?

  3. Anon 9:41: Yours is a reasonable question. The main use for exams in philosophy, IMO, is that we have few other ways of evaluating the breadth of student knowledge. In a course, for instance, where students write 2-3 papers, their mastery of the topics of those papers will be evident. But if we are at all concerned about the breadth of student understanding, then exams have a key role to play in evaluating that.

    (More generally, I don't fully agree that exams are not a good way of encouraging students to learn philosophy. It very much depends on the exam, the students' study habits, etc. -- the very concerns I was pointing to in the original post.)

  4. For years I resisted giving exams. I did poorly on them as a student myself and I could never understand why being able to do something quickly was a relevant skill to encourage or assess. I was wrong. As Michael points out, exams are a great way to assess synthesis and breadth. They are also a great way to encourage active reading.

    Here's how I do my exams. Like Inside said, I provide anywhere between seven to ten essay questions at least two weeks in advance. I then actively encourage students to divvy up work, meet as groups and share what they think are good answers.

    On the day of the exam I choose a subset of those questions, from which they are allowed to choose a subset. As a result, they must be well prepared to answer all of the questions, but they have some control over avoiding at least one question they are not prepared as well to answer.

    The results have been great. Most of them really hit it out of the park and you can tell that it is mostly a result of having worked together. I always give these exams about two weeks before a paper is due and I have seen a marked improvement on their papers.

    Finally, just like I wasn't good at exams, some of my students aren't strong paper writers. Offering at least two papers and at least two exams lets all students have some way of presenting work in a format that gives them a better chance to shine.

  5. When I give exams (other than in logic classes), I structure them in the same way that ITPF and Becko do. I found those exams very helpful as a student. But I haven't explicitly encouraged students to work together in thinking about answers. I think that's a great idea, Becko.

    Another possibility, based on a method I used to use as a student: Challenge your students to write one sentence or one paragraph explanations of X such that a friend who had not taken the course could read the sentence and understand the main point or importance of X. I think this exercise helps crystallize one's understanding of what one is studying.

  6. This may sound cynical, but it seems to me that this boils down to a distinction between learning to do x and studying for x. Most students in my intro, general education courses, which are what I mostly teach, are not there to learn to do philosophy (whatever we might take that to mean) - they are there to do what it takes to get the credits. To that end I think that they gear their learning/studying habits to acquiring only that which they will need to pass at whatever grade level they can accomplish. I think this is one of the motivations behind the demand for increasingly detailed and complex syllabi. When we give them the exam questions beforehand (which I myself do, but am thinking of stopping) we delimit what it is that they have to focus on and I think that this has disadvantages to learning. Learning should be an ongoing process where the goal is ownership and retention of the material/skills. Studying is short term and in spurts and geared towards retaining information only long enough to perform the task.

  7. John,

    I agree with you about the distinction between "studying X" and "learning to do X," and I agree that most students are more interested in the former.

    But I think that giving students the questions in advance does not prioritize studying at the expense of learning—provided that the questions are essay questions. Based on my own experience, I think that writing out answers to (good) essay questions does create deeper learning than other methods that students might use to study, especially if those other methods are limited to things like reviewing one's notes over and over again.

    It also helps, I think, to give out a set of questions that is large enough that students really do need to understand a good amount of material in order to answer them all.

  8. I took my own notes on the reading, and then I took notes on my notes. I repeated this cycle until I had a paragraph that explained the reading. By the time I got to this point I knew the material pretty well.


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