Saturday, January 29, 2011

3 study strategies for students

Apropos our recent discussion of testing versus 'studying,' Landmark College's Jim Baucom discusses some basic study strategies that are proven to enhance learning. Baucom notes that the amount of time college students spend studying has declined since the 1960's and proposes that a key explanation for this is that students don't know how to study effectively. It makes sense really: You 'study' in order to master material. Tests, etc., show that you didn't learn much, so you pull back from 'studying'.

Baucom mentions three research-tested methods of studying that actually work:

  1. Generate (and try to answer) your own questions about the material.
  2. Create visuals representing what you read.
  3. Summarize the information you want to learn.


  1. I know that a number of us have handouts we give to students with advice on writing papers (my version is here: It seems like it be a good idea for us to also make a similar handout for studying. In addition to the suggestions from Michael mentiones from Baucom above, do the rest of you have more that would be good to add to this resource?

  2. Good advice. I'm curious to hear ideas on if there are study techniques especially important for philosophy, compared to when studyin other subjects. My own hunch is that learning to study philosophy well needs to involve effective notation for structuring arguments (nested pro/con structure), alternatives and so on. Making mindmaps or matrixes for systematic overview and comparison is also a highly useful tool.

    Hursthouse 2000 Ethics, Humans and Other Animals is an animal ethics textbook with readings but it includes very useful general material on HOW to read philosophy texts and what to do while reading (and re-rereading) to increase and retain knowledge.

    Browse chapter 1, page 3 onwards here:

  3. Interesting thoughts. I stumbled across this site by accident. I am a long time homeschooler - oldest child is now 21. I have frequently mentioned Socrates to my children....they aren't interested.

    I have told them the hazards of rote memory and test taking.....they aren't interested...

    I have encouraged them to explore topics that interest them and study them to their satisfaction...seeing where it leads them....they aren't interested.

    They want to be like all the other kids their age...very frustrating to say the least....

    It is encouraging to read that I am not alone in what matters in really learning something and in the joy of learning..

  4. Homeschooler, Don't give up hope. I too thought that my homeschooled children weren't interested but they think for themselves, they are avid readers, very articulate in the English language and best of all get critical learning. They now have children of their own and hate that they are taught to the "test"!

  5. I'm a recent grad who majored in philosophy; I think the most important thing I did when trying to get my head around the material, whether for a paper or a test, was to rewrite the argument at hand in my own terms, step by step. I didn't feel like I had really learned the material or understood it until I got inside the head of the argument, as it were, and could make it myself (as opposed to parroting).

  6. I learned a great deal about teaching intro to philosophy by teaching a course on-line. One of the things that I think benefited the students and me the most was to engage them weekly in discussions on the Discussion Board. This was a required part of the course, accounting for @ 20% of their final grade. I put two or three questions dealing with that week's reading assignment on BB. As they answered the original questions and others (including me) responded to them , new ones naturally arose furthering the discussions and opening up new threads. I took many of the exam questions from these discussions and by and large most students did a reasonably good job answering them. I have now incorporated a discussion board requirement in by fact-to-face courses.

  7. I've got something about how to take essay tests, i.e. how to write a good essay for an exam, but nothing about this, though I'm now going to try to put one together.

  8. Here's my first stab at such a handout, though it is a work in progress:

  9. Mike, thanks for HTML'ing that. Let's hear some more ideas for study tips. Perhaps we can turn Mike's handout into a group product.

    Here are some philosophy-specific study ideas I've thought of that I suspect are effective:

    Annotate the assigned readings. Work with the assigned readings and annotate them using argumentative verbs and terminology. Write 'thesis' in the margins next to the text's thesis; '1st arg' next to the author's first argument for her thesis; use other terms like 'reply to 1st arg,' '2nd arg', etc.

    Reconstruct arguments, differentiating conclusions from premises. This should be easy if you've done the annotating described above.

    Chart the contrasts amongst positions by cataloging differences among arguments' premises and conclusions. Sounds complicated, but here's the idea: Philosophers sometimes argue for the same conclusion using premises different from those used by other philosophers. You can argue for a conclusion P by appealing to premises Q and R, or by appealing to S and T, etc. Remarkably, they sometimes argue for different conclusions even though they appeal to the same premises. For example, take four prominent articles on the ethics of abortion: English, Thomson, Marquis, Noonan. Which authors reach similar conclusions about abortion? Do they do it with the same set of premises or with different premises? Do any of the others appeal to the same premises but reach different conclusions from those premises?

    Put positions in conversation with each other. If you've read philosopher A and philosopher B on some topic, imagine them debating each other. How would A respond to B's positions or arguments? How would B respond to A's positions or arguments?

  10. Thanks for these ideas, Michael. I'll add your tips and make this a collaborative ISW project.

  11. These are great suggestions!

    My contribution is closely related to Michael's suggestions about reconstructing arguments and imagining philosophers in conversation with each other:

    When studying a particular argument, summarize the argument, come up with an objection that might be raised against the argument, and suggest a way that the argument's author might respond to that objection. When summarizing the argument, be sure to include all of the premises, not just the conclusion. Do the same when raising an objection: State the problem you see with the argument and explain why you think it's a problem. Do your best to explain everything in a way that your friends could understand it, even if they haven't taken any philosophy classes.

    As teachers, it would probably be helpful for us to train students in using these techniques by assigning the techniques as homework and providing feedback.

    I also wonder whether it would help to tell students what it is they're supposed to be learning. (It's not "facts," dates, formulas, etc., so what is it?) I tell my students that, aside from various important skills, they're supposed to be learning philosophical positions (theories) and arguments, with some discussion of what it is to understand a philosophical position or an argument.

  12. Thanks for this, David. I've added your contribution and edited the introductory paragraph at the beginning of the document to include your last point. I welcome any other suggestions, including editing on that introduction.

  13. We haven't updated these study tips in a while, but here are some good tips compiled by Ashley McDowell:


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