Improving Exam Grades with a Strategized Approach to Studying and Resources
Staff posted on May 08, 2017 |

Final exams during your engineering degree are tough, and sometimes it feels like all you do is study. And sometimes, despite access to a wide variety of learning resources – including textbooks, online references and homework assignments – and no matter how hard you study, it can feel like you fall short of performance expectations.

According to a study by researchers at Stanford University, the solution may not be to work harder, but rather to study more strategically. The researchers found that applying a strategic approach to studying helped college students improve their exam scores by an average of one-third of a letter grade.

Strategic Studying

The study was inspired by feedback the research team got from students who were less than pleased after they received their exam grades. Many of these students lamented their poor performance despite acknowledging the great deal of effort they put into studying before the exam.

The most common complaint seemed to be, “I studied really hard, and I’m just as smart as [another student]. I don’t understand why I didn’t do well.”

In response, the lead author of the paper, Patricia Chen, would ask these students, “Describe to me how you studied for the exam.” From the responses, Chen gleaned the insight that many students – intelligent and willing to work hard – fall short of performing to their potential because they don’t employ a strategic approach to their learning.

“Blind effort alone, without directing that effort in an effective manner, doesn’t always get you to where you want to go,” Chen said.

The Power of Self-Reflection

The research team zeroed in on one important aspect of strategic learning – engaging in self-reflection to identify and use your available resources as wisely as possible.

Prior research supports the general use of metacognition, or “thinking about one’s own thinking,” as a successful means to improved learning and academic performance. However, it remained to be seen whether specifically strategizing about one’s use of study resources would improve students’ academic performance.

The researchers developed a “Strategic Resource Use” intervention that blends educational and social psychological theories, and “prompts students to think deliberately about how to approach their learning effectively with the resources available to them.”

The intervention was administered through brief online surveys sent to college students in an introductory statistics class about one week before their exams.

Students in the control group received a business-as-usual exam reminder. Students in the intervention group received the same exam reminder, plus a short Strategic Resource Use exercise: They were asked to think about what they expected to be on the upcoming exam, and then to strategize what kinds of resources they would use to study most effectively.

Following this, the students were asked to explain why each resource they chose would be useful to their learning and then describe how they planned on using their chosen resources during their exam studying.

In two studies, students who strategized their resource use before studying outperformed comparable classmates in the control group by an average of one-third of a letter grade in the class. In the first study, students scored an average of 3.45 percentage points higher in the class, and in the second study, the average difference was 4.65 percentage points.

Why was the intervention so effective? The researchers found that the brief intervention exercise made students more self-reflective about how they approached their learning. In turn, this metacognition enabled students to use their resources more effectively, as their self-reports showed.

“It’s not merely about using a greater number of resources for studying. The important point here is using resources more effectively,” stressed Desmond Ong, on of the Stanford researchers.

This strategic thinking also provided students with other psychological benefits, including feelings of empowerment regarding their education. Students who had taken the intervention perceived a greater control over their learning and expressed fewer negative feelings about their upcoming exams.

Chen emphasized it is important to consider the specific class environment before implementing the Strategic Resource Use intervention. The intervention has been tested – and found effective – in resource-rich environments, where students have access to textbooks, lecture notes, online resources, teaching assistants and other tools.

Currently, it is still unknown how well the intervention would work in resource-scarce environments. In resource-scarce environments, said Chen, it might be better for educators to focus on providing “a basic repertoire of resources” first.

Strategies for Life and Learning

Chen proposes that the principle behind Strategic Resource Use can be applied beyond academics, such as learning a new skill at work or making changes in your personal life.

“Actively self-reflecting on the approaches that you are taking fosters a strategic stance that is really important in life,” she said. “Strategic thinking distinguishes between people of comparable ability and effort. This can make the difference between people who achieve and people who have the potential to achieve, but don’t.”

Chen offered one more piece of advice: “Strategize how you want to effectively direct your efforts before you pour your energy into it.”

Source: Stanford University

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