Instilling Effective Study Skills in Students: Start Early, Know Your Weaknesses

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Jennifer McGuire, Integrative Biology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2007

The first class I taught at Berkeley was Introductory Biology (Bio 1B). The students in this class were largely fresh out of high school and had not yet established effective study skills. The first time I taught the course, I noticed that the students performed very poorly on the first exam. When I asked them what was wrong, they said that they did not know what to expect on the exam. I investigated further and discovered that most of the students were waiting until just before the exam to begin studying. Some even waited until the week before the exam to catch up on all of the webcast lectures that they had missed.

That semester, I was giving biweekly quizzes that were mostly fill-in-the-blank and short answer. These focused mostly on lab material but also contained concepts from the class. Also, around exam time, I tried to help my students by making them vocabulary lists, study diagrams, and summary charts. I pointed out that past exams were available for the students to peruse in the Bio 1B office. I also held extra office hours, which few students attended. Despite my efforts, the students continued to struggle with the exam material. It seemed to me that, despite my making the study material available to them, most of the students would not take advantage of it or study in a timely manner unless they had some graded incentive.

The next semester when I taught the course, I decided to try to help my students achieve better test results by getting them to study for the exams earlier. To do this, I changed the way in which I quizzed the students. I did not tell the students which weeks we would have normal lab quizzes, so they would have to keep up with all of their labs. Most importantly, two weeks prior to each of the three exams, we would have a quiz in our discussion section that mimicked the structure of the upcoming exam. They contained material exclusively from lectures and counted for twice as many points as lab quizzes. I was sure to return these exams as soon as possible and emphasized that this was so the students could discover in which aspects of the subject matter they were weakest and needed to study more.

The first time I gave one of these discussion quizzes, the students had not studied for it much and did very poorly on it. They told me that they thought it would be easy since it was a multiple choice quiz. This quiz evidently prevented them from making the same mistake about the upcoming multiple choice exam, because the test scores of my section exceeded the mean. Each time I gave one of these quizzes, the students improved their performance on the quiz. Correspondingly, each time they took an exam, they exceeded the mean test scores by increasingly more.

At the end of the semester, I asked the students what they thought about my quiz methodology. They responded that they did not like the pop lab quizzes, but that they found the discussion quizzes really helpful. Quizzing randomly and giving an early, graded practice exam encouraged my students to study more regularly throughout the semester and helped them to discover what material they did not know before they took the exam. Now that these students have been exposed to these study methods, hopefully they will see their effectiveness and apply them to other classes in the future. Regardless, this quiz methodology enhanced my students’ performance in Bio 1B, giving them a strong foundation for future biology classes.