When I started college, I had pretty poor study skills. I didn’t really need to study much to do well in high school, and so arrived in college pretty unprepared in terms of study skills.* At first, I mainly read over notes and tried the occasional flash card. Now I know that those aren’t effective study habits, but I didn’t know that then.
At some point, I happened upon the strategy of trying to come up with my own questions on different topics. Sometimes, it seemed pretty obvious what questions could be written on a particular topic, and I’d be pleased when a question on an exam was similar to one I’d come up with on my own. Other times, while thinking through how to write questions on a topic, I’d see linkages between topics that I’d missed before. And trying to figure out how to write plausible wrong answers (a.k.a. “distractors”) was really useful (even if it can be challenging, as I described yesterday!)
As an instructor, I now suggest this to students who ask me for help with studying. When I give this suggestion to students, I suggest that they try to link different learning objectives from a given lecture, as a way to try to make things a bit more concrete (and to remind them that they should be focusing on the learning objectives).
So, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that my Intro Bio co-instructor (and award winner teacher!) Trisha Wittkopp also recommends to students that they try to write their own questions. She had the further suggestion that they should share questions with their friends, so that they could think through why certain answers were wrong, or maybe why a couple of the answers were actually right, etc. In short, writing questions and sharing and discussing them with peers encourages students to think deeply about the material.
One hesitation I had about recommending this strategy to students is that I worried that some students who did not have strong peer groups would especially suffer for the lack of peers with whom to study. We were using Piazza as a platform for students to interact with each other, and I thought that I could set up a section where students could submit questions and respond to each other. Students had the option of posting anonymously, and my hope was that that would help them overcome potential embarrassment about submitting questions. But only a single question was ever submitted, and it was a very straightforward, Bloom’s Level 1 question.
So, I am left feeling like this is a useful study strategy, but like it is not being used — or, at least, not used effectively — by most of our students. As far as I can tell, many students don’t try this strategy in the first place, but I’m not sure why. And, based on office hours, for those who do try, many write very simple questions that can be answered just by memorizing a passage of the textbook or information given on a slide. These are not the types of questions that are challenging to students on exams.
So, I’m still wondering: how can we get them to move to that higher level? Or is this not really a strategy that works generally? (See the postscript below, which suggests that the strategy can work generally.) Which has me wondering: do you suggest a similar strategy for your students? If so, how well do students do with it? Have you found strategies that help them achieve these goals? Or, if you are a student, do you use such a strategy to study? What helped you learn how to write more challenging questions?
Suggestions and ideas will be very much appreciated!
*I think this is fairly common, which is part of why I try to give information to students about general study skills! This is a great summary of the information contained in Make It Stick.
Postscript: After writing this post, I learned about PeerWise during Software Carpentry instructor training. This looks like a formal version of what I tried (and failed) to set up in my course last year. It’s encouraging to hear that the strategy can work and be really effective. I would love to hear from any of our readers if they’ve used this or something similar. How did you implement it in your class? Was there an incentive or requirement for students to use it?