Studying for Exams: Self-Regulated Learning

Steve Volk, November 20, 2017

Let’s stay with the theme of helping students learn how to learn for another week. Two weeks ago, I offered some ways to support student metacognition; last week, the “Article of the Week” explored six ways for faculty to reflect on their own teaching.

This week, I want to focus on helping students develop strategies to prepare for their upcoming exams. Yes, the season is upon us. But a word of warning and remorse: some of the methods I’ll suggest have the best chance of succeeding if implemented earlier in the semester – before the midterm at least. But don’t touch that dial – there are suggestions for everyone and you can also mark the article for retrieval at the start of next semester. Still, keep in mind that strategies to help students become more knowledgeable about how they prepare for exams can take time to sink in. So, let’s dive in.

For students, preparing for exams involves a considerable number of variables, not just the amount of time spent studying. In fact, the literature suggests that there’s a fairly tenuous relationship between how well students do on exams and the time they spend studying. This can be a revelation for many students – I know it was for me. During my undergraduate years, I was sure that there was a direct relationship between studying for more hours and getting a better grade, and the fact that the empirical evidence in my own case didn’t bear this out never dissuaded me from this way of thinking.

To talk about adopting more strategic approaches to studying for exams in order to get better results (and I will stipulate from the start that getting better grades is not an automatic marker for learning more) is to move from the area of metacognition to one which has been called “Self-Regulated Learning” or “Strategic Resource Use for Learning.” I’m going to look at these approaches, particularly as they are discussed in two papers. The first, “How Should I Study for the Exam? Self-Regulated Learning Strategies and Achievement in Introductory Biology,” was written by Amanda J. Sebesta and Elena Bray Speth, both of the biology department at Saint Louis University. The second paper was co-authored by a team including Patricia Chen (psychology), Omar Chavez (statistics), Desmond C. Ong (computer science), and Brenda Gunderson (statistics), “Strategic Resource Use for Learning: A Self-Administered Intervention That Guides Self-Reflection on Effective Resource Use Enhances Academic Performance,” Psychological Science (2017).

Self-Regulated Learning: Notes from an intro-level biology class.

While researchers have defined “Self-Regulated Learning” (SRL) somewhat differently, I’ll go with our team of biologists who base their approach on the social cognitive perspective of Barry Zimmerman. They suggest that self-regulation of learning is best seen as an application of metacognition, and that self-regulated learners systematically engage in three separate if overlapped processes:

(1) Metacognitive – including, among other things, planning, goal setting, monitoring learning, and self-evaluation;

(2) Motivational – demonstrated by high levels of self-efficacy; an intrinsic interest in one’s studies (rather than being motivated by extrinsic factors); an ability to assume control of one’s learning; and the willingness to accepting responsibility for outcomes; and,

(3) Behavioral – processes such as seeking out information and advice, selecting and structuring the best study environments; or adopting effective study strategies for any particular task and in a variety of contexts, among other things.

We know that students can do better when they have more resources at their disposal, or, to put it more accurately, what we know is that students at poorly resourced colleges and universities are at a disadvantage. But when we look at learning through the lens of “self-regulated learning,” what becomes clear is that “providing students with all these resources hinges on the assumption that they know how to select and use their resources wisely” (Chen et al). Empirical studies suggest that they don’t.

Similarly, it’s not hard to recognize that students who come to college academically under-prepared will struggle to succeed, carrying the load not only of inadequate academic grounding (including poor planning or monitoring skills), but also often shouldering greater social or psychological burdens such as low self-esteem. But even higher-achieving students who breezed through high school are often not well situated to take control of their own education, particularly when the responsibility for learning is intentionally shifted to the student.

So when students appear at your door to ask, “How should I study for the exam?” we should be thinking about a more substantial answer than: reread the text and go through your notes.

Sebesta and Speth sought to develop more useful answers to that question by examining which Self-Regulated Learning (see the table below) strategies their introductory biology students reported using most often when studying for their first exam. They then went on to determine which of these were associated with higher achievement on exams, higher grades in the course, and continued use in the future. They selected 15 learning strategies and asked students which they used and how frequently. (Details of their research design and data analysis can be found in the cited article).

Of these, the most widely used (based on student self-reporting) were:

  • Seeking information
  • Environmental structuring
  • Reviewing the textbook or screencasts
  • Seeking assistance from peers
  • Keeping records and monitoring.

The two items that were employed the least were seeking the instructor’s assistance, and seeking assistance from other resources (tutors, etc.). So, if you’re wondering why students aren’t coming to your office hours…you’re not alone, evidently.

When the researchers correlated the learning strategies with the grades the students received on their exams, six strategies in particular had a statistically significant association with greater academic success on the exams:

  • Self-evaluation
  • Seeking information
  • Keeping records and monitoring
  • Seeking instructor assistance
  • Reviewing exams (when they were available)
  • Reviewing graded work

The fact that “seeking instructor assistance” came out near the top of the list in terms of its impact as a strategy for exam preparation probably shouldn’t boost our self-regard too significantly. Not that we can’t be of some help, but it is likely that those students who come to office hours are probably the higher-achieving students who are motivated to maintain their high grades and are more confident in coming to us with questions. In fact, one of the great benefits of a well-designed peer instruction program, such as Oberlin’s CLEAR program and the OWLS peer instructors in the STEM fields, is that they are more likely to attract students who are embarrassed to disclose their confusions to a faculty member.

Sebesta and Speth are clear that theirs is not a causal study, and that there are obvious limitations to self-reported data, but this doesn’t lessen the importance of their conclusions. As they note:

Most students entering introductory science courses…are not expert learners, and they need practice and feedback to develop robust cognitive and metacognitive strategies. It is critical that instructors, who are disciplinary experts, become cognizant that 1) students are still developing their learning strategies and 2) self-regulation can be fostered in concrete ways. There is, in fact, evidence that learners – regardless of their academic ability – can develop SRL habits and, concurrently, improve their academic achievement. With appropriate instruction and training, or by participating in learning environments that are designed to promote SRL, students can acquire and strengthen self-regulatory processes.

So, what can we do to foster self-regulation? There are a number of suggestions presented below, but here I’d suggest the use of what some have called “exam wrappers” (post-examination surveys) to help students think about how they prepared for the exam, explore the errors they made, and revise their study approach for the next exam.  Similarly we can provide students with regular homework assignments, particularly low-stakes assignments designed primarily for formative purposes whereby students can learn not just from their mistakes but from how they prepared their homework; and we can report back frequently to students about their learning (admittedly easier to accomplish in a smaller class than a larger one). Also, think about administering the survey (available at the end of this post) that Sebesta and Speth prepared.

Strategic Resource Use for Learning: An intro-level statistics class.

The research into self-regulated learning led by Patricia Chen of Stanford’s psychology department, unlike the Sebesta-Speth work, involved two randomized controlled trials among college students. The team was interested in determining whether one specific component of self-regulated learning – strategically reflecting on how to use one’s resources effectively for learning – contributed in a causal way to students’ performance on exams, and if it did, how. Central to the study was the realization that while many colleges provide a significant amount of resources to their students (not just libraries and study spaces, but academic support systems, counseling, etc.), if the students aren’t using them, or aren’t using them in an optimal fashion, they won’t have the desired impact. The authors studied two separate cohorts of an introductory level statistic class at a large Midwestern public university. [Again, those interested in the research design and technical findings will find them in the article which was published earlier this year in Psychological Science, 28:6 (2017): 774-785.]

Briefly described, here’s their approach: Students were randomly assigned to a “treatment” group or a “control” group. All students in the class were given the opportunity to participate for homework extra credit points. Students were given pre- and post-exam surveys to complete. At the start of each pre-exam survey, all students were reminded that the test was worth 100 points and were asked to enter their desired grade and answer three questions: how motivated were they to get that grade; how important was it to them that they received that grade; and, how confident were they that they could achieve their desired grade.

Students in the treatment group got the same exam reminder and then a brief Strategic Resource Use exercise, prompting students to consider the upcoming exam format, think about which resources would help them best study for the exam, describe why they thought each resource would be useful, and indicate how they were planning to use each resource. The students indicated which class resources they wanted to use out of the 15 choices they had. These included lecture notes, practice exam questions, textbook readings, instructor office hours, peer discussions, etc. Students were then asked to describe why they thought each chosen resource would be useful for their exam preparation and then to describe the “specific, realistic, and concrete” plans they had for using these resources, including when, where, and how they would use them.

At the end of the semester, the instructors gave the students in the treatment group an 8-item Self-Reflection on Learning scale, assessing the extent to which they adjusted their studying to the class, thought about how effectively they were learning, changed the way they were studying when their approaches were ineffective, and reflected on their performance. They were also asked to list those resources they actually had used and rate them.

The researchers also measured students’ emotional and motivational effects, asking about the degree to which they were nervous or stressed about an upcoming exam (from “extremely” to “not at all”), and whether they thought that they had some control over the process by asking them to respond to the question: “My exam grades are affected by the way I choose to study for this course” (with choices ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”).

So, spoiler alert, I’m just going to jump straight to their conclusions (drum roll, please):

In both studies, our intent-to-treat analyses found that students in the treatment condition outperformed those in the control condition on their final course grades by an average of one third of a letter grade.

As students chose their resources when preparing for an exam (studying their notes, working with a peer, visiting the instructor’s office hours, etc.), those who had been given the brief, self-administered intervention that guided them to make strategic use of their available resources were more engaged in reflecting on what was expected of them and tended to do better. The intervention fostered greater self-reflection about how best to approach their learning in class which allowed them to use resources more strategically when preparing for exams and, thereby, do better.

What I found to be the most significant result of the study was that, for students, the act of strategically planning which resources would be useful — admittedly a highly important first step — did not by itself boost students’ grades. Also needed was a process by which the students would put their strategic plans into practice in a clear and reasonable manner. So, here in non-technical terms, are what the Chen study suggested to me:

  1. Having resources is better than not having resources;
  2. It’s important to think about, and plan for, how those resources will be used, and to consider the extent to which students will actually followed through and use them;
  3. Plans for the use of strategic resources should be practical and not overly ambitious or indiscriminate.

While these findings related to success on exams and in the course in general, the researchers also found that, relative to the control group, students in the treatment group both had a “lower negative affect” toward the upcoming exams (they were less anxious or fearful about it), and they also felt that they had more control over what would happen. Undoubtedly, these results played an important (if undetermined) part in the greater success of the treatment group, and we could expect that such understandings on the part of students would impact how they approached all their classes.

In the end, the authors report that four elements of the intervention “significantly and consistently” related to the students’ final performance in the course:

  1. Explicitly tailoring one’s choice of resources to the exam questions anticipated;
  2. Focusing resource use on building better learning and understanding of the content;
  3. Planning when to use the resources; and
  4. Planning how to use their resources to study.


At first glance, it could appear that the two studies reached different, even contradictory, conclusions. Sebesta and Speth concluded that instructors can employ a variety of instructional approaches to help students generate more strategies to self-regulate their learning in terms of three critical processes: metacognitive (planning, goal setting, self-evaluating), motivational (developing an intrinsic interest in the subject, assuming greater control over their learning), and behavioral (structuring optimal study environments). They found that these processes could be fostered through the administration of a relatively short questionnaire, and they concluded that there were some important correlations between administering a self-regulating learning questionnaire and better performance on exams. The Chen team went further, arguing that going beyond the SRL questions to help students actually reflect not just on their resource choices but on how they will use specific resources strategically is the essential element. I actually don’t find the studies to be contradictory – especially since the first was not intended as a valid and reliable measure of students’ self-regulated learning abilities. If anything, the two studies go well together, suggesting how we can improve student outcomes by first helping them approach studying for exams strategically, and then by helping them consider which of the resources that we offer will be of most help in the specific circumstances they are facing (exams, homework, papers, etc.), and how they plan to use those resources. In either case, it’s a lot more than telling students to re-read the text and go over their notes!

For a critical review of the literature on “Self-Regulated Learning,” see Sharon Zumbrunn, Joseph Tadlock, and Elizabeth Danielle Roberts, “Encouraging Self-Regulated Learning in the Classroom: A Review of the Literature” (2011).

Below are the questions that Sebesta and Speth asked after they administered the first exam:

TABLE 1. Survey 1 (administer after exam 1)

For each of the following learning strategies, please mark how frequently you used them in preparing for exam 1.


Survey Item






Very Often

1.       I evaluate the quality or progress of my work. For example, I check over my assigned work to make sure I did it right; when I get an answer wrong, I try to understand why the correct answer is right. 1 2 3 4 5
2.       When I study, I rearrange and organize the information to improve my learning (by making outlines, diagrams, summaries, etc.). 1 2 3 4 5
3.       I set goals and a timeline for studying the material and I plan how to meet those goals on time (e.g., plan to review a chapter a day in the week before a test). 1 2 3 4 5
4.       When I’m uncertain about the answer to an assignment question, I look up the information I need to answer the question. 1 2 3 4 5
5.       I take notes in class or when I study, and I mark what I don’t understand. 1 2 3 4 5
6.       I arrange my studying environment so I can learn more effectively (for example, I move to a quiet place or have background noise). 1 2 3 4 5
7.       I reward myself when I reach a learning goal (for example, I go out after doing well on a test). 1 2 3 4 5
8.       When I study, I practice or rehearse important facts in order to memorize them (for example, using flashcards). 1 2 3 4 5
9.       If I don’t understand something, I ask a friend or classmate for help. 1 2 3 4 5
10.     If I don’t understand something, I ask the instructor for help or clarification. 1 2 3 4 5
11.     If I don’t understand something, I ask a TA, SI leader, tutor, or another knowledgeable person for help. 1 2 3 4 5
12.     I reread my notes. 1 2 3 4 5
13.     I practice answering previous years’ exams. 1 2 3 4 5
14.     I review the textbook readings and/or Tegrity screencasts. 1 2 3 4 5
15.     I review my previous assignments (homework, clicker questions, class worksheets) critically (meaning, in an effort to understand the correct answer and/or explanation). 1 2 3 4 5
16.     Briefly explain any other strategies (in addition to those listed above) you used when studying biology. 1 2 3 4 5
17.     What was your grade on [course name] exam 1? (drop-down menu to choose letter grade: A B C D F) 1 2 3 4 5
18.     How satisfied are you with your exam grade?                                      1 = strongly dissatisfied  2 = dissatisfied  3 = neither satisfied or dissatisfied  4 = satisfied  5 = very satisfied 1 2 3 4 5
19.     Think about your study strategies, and whether you think they have worked well for you. Perhaps, you may want to consider trying some different approaches if you wish to improve your outcome. If you are happy with your performance, it may help to think about what approach(es) has (have) been most effective for you, and continuing with them. Either way, it is important to have a plan. What will you do to prepare for the next exam?

Reference: Sebesta, A. J. and Bray Speth, E. (2017). How should I study for the exam? Self-regulated learning strategies and achievement in introductory biology. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 16 (Summer).


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