Prioritizing What to Study

A major goal of my classroom (I teach AP Psychology at the high school level) is to not only instruct students on major aspects of the study of psychology but to also assist students with acquiring healthier study habits. Most of my students will further their education at either a 2 year or 4 year college/university. I believe I would be doing them a disservice if I didn’t help them to understand better both how they learn (which is part of my class curriculum) and how they can apply this knowledge to their studies. So, I invest a solid amount of time during the semester introducing and utilizing many facets of how to study properly (for instance, retrieval practice and spaced practice) and discussing how students should use these strategies in their studying outside of school. 

I am frequently asked two questions during these discussions about studying:

  1. How should I study?
  1. What should I study?

Here’s a previous article answering question 1.  Below is my answer to question 2.

Generally speaking, when students ask this question, they want specific information…a study guide. Tell me exactly what information will be on the test; nothing more, nothing less. Personally, I am conflicted about this approach to studying. On the one hand, I do not want to trick students. I want them to know what is expected of them and what they are responsible for understanding before an assessment. On the other hand, I don’t want to exacerbate students’ poor habit of only learning simply for the sake of a grade. So rarely do I provide a lengthy study guide for my students prior to the test. I do, however, usually create a document that enumerates several big ideas from the unit of study to point students in the right direction. Also, occasionally throughout a unit of study, we will grow a brain dump daily to assist with studying. 

While specifics of what to study are fine to address, I also like to give students more general guidelines for what to study. I find these allow for the flexibility of use in other classes and tend to apply throughout a student’s education. Also, they allow students to take some ownership of their learning and be a bit more self-reliant with respect to their education. Provide students with widely applicable guidelines for studying that also assist with ‘growing’ healthier learners? Sounds like a winner to me. 

So, here are those more general guidelines for what to study prior to an assessment…or really, any time, honestly.

  1. Information you don’t know.

Now, this may seem obvious to you, but I challenge you to think about how you studied as a student. I know, for myself, I just read over all of my notes most of the time. I never really considered prioritizing what to study by what I know and what I don’t know. Start with studying the information you don’t know. How do you know what you know and what you don’t know? Assessment of learning. In my class, we utilize retrieval practice in some capacity daily. I task my students to not only document what they’ve answered correctly, but to really focus on what they answered incorrectly. It can be as simple as students recording on a piece of paper, throughout a unit of study, terms and concepts they miss during formative assessment opportunities. This provides students with a nice jumping off point for studying either nightly or more specifically for a summative assessment. Oftentimes, what we’ve gotten wrong during informal assessment opportunities is more informative and important, especially for future use and studying. 

  1. Information answered correctly via guessing.

How often do our students complete an assignment, see their grade, and assume they know all of the information because they earned a good grade? I’m sure it happens all the time. I make sure to battle this assumption of learning by asking my students to identify questions where they guessed. This can simply be done with an asterisk beside the questions as they go. Another, more substantial manner for helping students understand how much they really know versus what they’ve guessed is to have them assign a confidence rating to the questions. The scale can be somewhat arbitrary. I may have my students give all questions a rating from 1 (no confidence, pure guess) to a 5 (100% sure this is the correct answer). After they finish, they can look back at the 1-3 confidence ratings and realize this information, whether answered correctly or not, is not known very well. 

Identifying these guessed-correctly answers is important and takes some practice with students. Fight the assumption of learning and make the studying of this information a priority. It may be as simple as saying to your students that if they had to guess on a question, they don’t know the material well enough. If they knew it well enough, they wouldn’t have guessed. 

  1. Confusing information.

A last category of material I like to highlight for my students as information they should study is commonly confusing terms/concepts. Even if, during formative assessment opportunities, students answer these questions correctly with a high level of confidence, they potentially may be confused on a summative assessment. As we cover material in class, I will let students know of subject matter students in the past have ‘mixed up’. At this point, I want students to take a moment to notate this and we will discuss why, for instance, two terms/concepts may be confused for each other. Sometimes just taking a pause to have students think through and chat about why information may be confusing helps them to sort it out mentally. I find that identifying and thinking through this information up front can stifle or eliminate the confusion later. 

I believe it imperative to have discussions in class to explicitly highlight both how to study properly and what to study. While I am quite lucky that some of this falls within the curriculum of AP Psychology, certainly one doesn’t have to be a psychology teacher to understand its importance for all students. It appears to me that this information is sometimes thought to be somewhat intuitive to students, but it is not. This is what I would call a critical conversation to be had with students. Critical for their present and future success as a student and learner. If we don’t have it with them, who will? 

What information do you prioritize for students to study?

How do you convey to students what they should prioritize?

Feature Image by Soundtrap on Unsplash

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