Saturday, April 20, 2013

Study Guides and Student Creativity

When I teach my freshman course here at the University of Puget Sound---titled "The Unity of Life," which means the subject matter is introductory cell and molecular biology---some of my students face the need to study harder and more effectively than they ever had before coming to college.  Each year, the second exam I give, which covers biochemistry, students tend to find very challenging, and thus that exam has the lowest class average (around 69 - 70%). 

Different students have different strategies for academic success.  I know some students who define "studying" as:  looking at PowerPoint slides, television on, while listening the music, having people over to chat, and texting with other friends every few minutes.  No kidding. The amazing thing to me is that for some students, that approach works!

The word is out on what works best for the majority of students when it comes to studying.  There are many places and pundits to consult, for a student to find what works best for them.  Sometimes the news is not what you might expect (that studying in the same location does not help, for example).  I agreed with most of what was written here.   There are even some "tough love" approaches to advice for students, like the, um, very strong (and cathartic at times for educators) "Top Ten Student No Sympathy Lines."  I myself tend to shy away from the "tough talk" approach (though it can be helpful and again cathartic at times).  Being positive, I stick with the basics:  time spent studying, not just before an exam, but consistently over time; physically writing things down (I do think that there is evidence that kinesthetic learning works for some students); coming regularly to office hours; doing sample problems; and teaching concepts to other students as a study tool (as opposed to studying together, which is not always effective).

I find that student creativity really "cements" ideas and concepts into the student brain, and this should not surprise me, given the literature on learning.  Plus, if it is a strategy that the student comes up with, it would be definition fit their "learning style."

Which brings us back to the Dreaded Examination Number Two.  Before the exam, I had told students of a group of students from years before who had done poorly on a couple of exams, and were committed to really improving. They had a study session with pizza, and after eating the pizza, wrote down everything they could think of from the class.  Soon, the pizza box was like a medieval manuscript, illuminated with concepts from the course.  The students gave me the pizza box at the end of the course, which was getting a bit ripe.  So I couldn't keep it.  But my point was clear, I hoped.

After the exam, one of the students presented me with the study guide she had made for herself, which I show here:

Yes, it looks like the unusual offspring of Albert Lehninger and Peter Max.  I hope you can see the detail and dense information (and the interesting artwork).  But it was effective for that student.  And perhaps in part because of the kinesthetics of physically writing down the material!

To be sure, there is great diversity in how students engage classroom material.  I have even heard the differences called "neurodiversity." I don't know if that terminology is eye-rolling; I think that there is some truth to it, and I am not alone in thinking about the topic in that fashion.  

Don't get me wrong:  I know that this is an uphill battle.  For example, every year I have taught full time (since 1995!), I have the following exchange right after an exam:

Me, to student:  "You look very tired.  Are you all right?"

Student, yawning and jittery with caffeine:  "Yeah.  I stayed up all night studying."

Me:  "Why would you do that?"

Student, shrugging:  "I do my best work under pressure."

Me:  "Have you ever worked, well, not under pressure?"

Student, confused:  "No.  Why?"

Imagine my sad chuckle at that point.  This happens every semester, and probably has happened at every institution of higher learning since forever.

The important thing, for us as educators, is to try to help students find the strategies that work best for them.  It can be an unpleasant process of trial and error in some cases (and sometimes does not work at all),  but if I can help a few students who were struggling find their academic footing, why, that is a great feeling indeed!  Not only that, it is part of my job.  

Cool artwork such as the study guide above is just the metaphorical cherry on top.


  1. Super, Mark! When are we ever going to co localize again? -Phoebe

    1. Hi Phoebe---that's the only name I knew you as! It's very nice to hear from you. I will be at ASMCUE and ASM this year. I hope you are doing well...


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