Tips on Teaching

Study Guides or Guidance for Studying?

by Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

As we head into the final stretch of the term, you may be thinking about how best to support your students as they prepare for final exams (assuming you give final exams!). Often, students ask for study guides. But even when we provide them, we often find that what we mean by “study guide” can differ from what students expect. This mismatch in expectations can be indicative of differences in understanding about the role or purpose of a study guide and, indeed, about what it means “to study.” Here are a few questions to consider if you’re contemplating study guides this finals season.

What or How?

In my view, different types of study guides serve different purposes. One key question is whether your study guide will tell students “what” to study or “how” to study. Often, students want the guide to tell them “what will be on” the test. But we may prefer to provide students with guidance on “how to study for” the test. The distinction here is crucial: specific content vs. strategies for deepening their understanding of that content in preparation for an exam. Even if your study guide provides a list of concepts that will be on the exam (the “what”), consider providing guidance, as well, on the kinds of things students might do with those concepts as they study (the “how”).

Surface Learning or Deep Learning?

The kind of study guide you provide (and the level of detail in it) may depend on the level and kind of learning you’ll be testing. Students often think that “studying” is about surface-level learning (i.e., things like recall), whereas we know that exams can test deeper or higher-order learning (i.e., things like application and synthesis). Different levels of learning obviously require different kinds of study strategies and may necessitate different approaches to study guides. Whatever the level of learning you’re testing, it can be helpful to articulate that to students as part of the study guide. For instance, when providing a list of terms that will be covered on an exam (the “what”), consider explaining whether you’ll be testing their ability to “identify” the terms, “explain” the terms, “apply” the terms, etc. You could go even further to explain the kinds of study strategies (the “how”) that would serve students well in learning the concepts at the right level. For example, if you will be testing students’ ability to apply concepts, you might encourage students to come up with real-world situations for which the concept has relevance and explain to peers how the concept applies in the situation.

You or Them?

Consider whether you need to develop the study guide or if there’s value in having students develop it. Students could work together during class time to do this, while you are there to guide them. Nunn (2019) recommends first sharing one you’ve created, then encourage students to use it as a model. In working collaboratively, students can test out different ideas, learn how their peers approach studying, and learn how to develop good exam questions on the course material (a key skill in effective studying and learning). Working together also helps students to better learn the skill of discerning the most important points or concepts from a given unit or course (and separating those things from less important points).

Finally, however you approach study guides, be sure to offer students guidance on how to USE your study guide. If students think the guide is just a list of things to memorize, but you plan to test their ability to apply concepts, students will be studying ineffectively for your exam. As McGuire (2015) explains, many students don’t know “how to learn.” Providing explicit instruction on how to learn – and study – the content of your courses empowers students to be more successful. This kind of transparency can be especially powerful for first-generation college students, students from under-represented groups, and students who come to college less well-prepared than their peers. 

References and Resources

Characteristics of Deep and Surface Approaches to Learning. Handout. UNSW, Sidney. 

Gurung, R.A.R. & McCann, L.I. (2011). How Should Students Study? Tips, Advice, and Pitfalls. Association for Psychological Science. 

Maguire, S.Y. (2015). Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation. Stylus. [LINK]

Nunn, L.M. (2019). 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-by-Week Resource for Teaching First-Year and First-Generation Students. Rutgers University Press. [LINK]

Weimer, M. (2012). Deep Learning vs. Surface Learning: Getting Students to Understand the Difference. Teaching Professor, November 2012.