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). Continue reading