What is one of the best ways to help your students learn science? Help them learn how to study!
You may have noticed that your job as a professor seems to go much more smoothly and students do better when most of your students are well-versed in study skills. Students might even seem to like you more, think you are a better teacher, or write more positive comments on your evaluations! But unfortunately, many college students begin college without the study skills needed to do well . And knowing how to study helps students perform better . How often do we as teachers think about this?
Having Students Think about their Study Skills
Through several methods, we can empower students for success by helping them learn how to study at the same time that we are helping them learn physiology. I spend a good amount of time on the first day of class showing data about the importance of good study habits and sharing a brief overview of successful study methods , . A good reinforcement of this is to have students think about how they study now. By completing an online study skills assessment that gives feedback , , students can see what they do and do not do in their study practices. A good follow-up to this would be to have students write a reflection on their assessment results, perhaps including two or three things they want to improve upon. This “assignment” can reinforce your message of how important the approach to learning is in successfully mastering new material.
Active Learning with Study Tools
There is an array of proven active learning methods  that many of us use. I like to use these not only to increase engagement, but also as a way to model study practices. One approach I frequently turn to is to simply take one or two learning objectives, and ask the students to work in small groups to create a mini-essay or a concept map  to explain the objectives. For example, I do this to help students understand the functions of and relationships between the cells, processes, and molecules involved in the innate and adaptive immune responses. I remind them that if they find this kind of activity helpful, they should make more concept maps or essays for the rest of the objectives. Some students will even email me the maps they make in their study practice for feedback. Or even better, it also creates a great chance to suggest to meet in office hours to go over the map together instead! This can be a sneaky way to target students that want more help, but are not quite ready to ask, or do not know what specifically to ask for help with.
Another idea is to have students create a diagram or drawing of a process, based on written information or vice-versa. For example, many of my students struggle to understand filtration and re-absorption in the kidney at a cellular/molecular level. I tell them to create a diagram of the nephron and draw the proteins and molecules needed for the re-absorption of sodium, glucose, etc., show the direction of movement, indicate active and passive transport, and so on. Many times, I divide the class into four groups, and each group diagrams one part of the nephron. Sometimes, we then create a large diagram on the chalkboard together – but other times it is better not to “give out the answer”. Since students tell me that they really only understand the part their group worked on, I remind them that during their own time, they should do the same for each of the other parts, again, something we can go over together later on if they wish. A lot of what we do in active learning is also building study skills, but students may not realize it, and may only see these as assignments and not general tools unless we make that clear.
Suggestions for Studying Outside of the Classroom
I have found that some students take advantage of optional study tools that I make available by posting them online. In lower-level courses where I may have a large proportion of students that are not used to spending time studying and do not know what to do in order to study, I try to have some kind of study tool posted for each chapter we cover. For those students that struggle in the class and come to me for general help, I have them start with these. Again, it opens up a great opportunity for us to meet regularly in office hours, because we can go over the study tools together. To reinforce the utility of this to the entire class, I assign only a handful of these for homework, or as in-class, solo or group assignments during the semester. These study tools are usually review matrices, concept maps, annotations of a blank diagram, completion of a key points outline, and the like.
Hopefully, these techniques have helped some students to improve their performance, engagement, and study practices in general, but I have not done a study to test this. However, I found an unexpected benefit for at least some students. A couple of comments from students were that they appreciated that I wanted them to succeed not only in this course but in general, and that they were glad to learn how important study skills are to succeeding in their courses. I believe that by helping students learn how to study, we are not giving them a fish, but teaching them how to fish.
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Sydella A. Blatch is an animal physiologist. She studied zoology as an undergraduate and earned her PhD studying the nutritional physiology of insects from Arizona State University. Her postdoctoral fellowship was at the National Institutes of Health, in the molecular biology of mouse epigenetics at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. She is now an Assistant Professor of Biology at Stevenson University, a primarily undergraduate university located near Baltimore, MD. She teaches courses in plant and animal form and function, and animal and human physiology. Her research interests are in understanding the relationships between microbes and B-vitamin production in, and the effects of this interaction on fruit flies. She has been awarded five awards for efforts in community building and diversity, gives professional development seminars on teaching-based professorships, and is a Physiology Education Community of Practice fellow.