What can we advise chemistry students about studying?
The importance of actively considering study
A quick glance at the specifications for any university lecture course will show that while lectures, labs, and tutorials will make up the formal part of how we interact with students, usually more than half of the time allocated to courses is given over to independent study. This time is crucial for students to be able to work with the materials of the course, both for the purpose of understanding the material as part of their overall journey to becoming a professional chemist, as well as needing to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding in an assessment. Indeed, while study often has negative connotations – a chore, or something negative because of its association with grading – it is ultimately a pleasant experience. We choose to study because we enjoy indulging in a topic and finding out more about it.
How do students study? How should students study? While there is universal agreement on the need for study, we are perhaps less clear in higher education about what students do, and indeed what we should recommend to them. In this post I will review some of the literature on studying, and draw together some recommendations based on theories of learning, and research done in chemistry education and elsewhere.
The process of learning and understanding is described by educationalists using a framework of constructivism. Constructivism is based on the idea that learners in any scenario will bring some prior experience or understanding to that scenario, and any subsequent learning will be built on, or “constructed”, in the mind of the learner. Thus, the learning scenario results in the learner adding to their existing knowledge.
This means that the knowledge of a learner will be individual to them, depending on how they constructed it, and we cannot assume that the learner will have the same knowledge as the teacher just as a result of listening to the teacher stating their knowledge – they may construct their knowledge (and understanding) in a different way depending on how they perceive it and relate it to what they already know. The famous quote from the psychologist David Ausubel – “The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows” – reflects the importance of considering students as individual, because whatever learning they subsequently undertake will be influenced by what they already know. As students acquire new information and continue to develop their understanding of a given topic, that development will ultimately be dependent on what knowledge they are adding the new information to.
Arising out of these core concepts, we can start to think about how this process of integrating new knowledge occurs, and map this directly onto study techniques. Generative learning theory arises out of constructivism and describes the process of comprehension, whereby learners generate
- relationships between the new pieces of knowledge and
- between the new information and what they already know.
The most important thing about this process of generating is that it is an active process. It requires learners to take actions that purposefully require the use of new this knowledge to develop an understanding and continually check that understanding, as well as making connections between the new information and the new information and what they already know. As we will see, this is a core and recurring concept in the various descriptions about how students should study, but as a headline, generating activities focus on confirming and testing understanding is an excellent prompt for study.
How do students study?
Of central interest is considering how students study. This is a really difficult question to answer. As Scott Lewis says in his fantastic recent webinar, even if we were to follow students around 24/7, we might not get a true representation about how they study – just because a student is looking at a textbook or lecture capture does not imply they are thinking about it. Lewis describes study as an activity that students do in addition to required activities on their course (for example writing lab reports and completing online homework, etc). He reports the findings of a published meta-analysis of student study approaches that showed that academic outcomes (grades) were related to study habits and were independent of measures of prior achievement (such as school scores).
But we are still less clear about how students study. One common approach to find out is through the use of in surveys, asking students to reflect on their study over a semester. A problem with this method is that it is unlikely that study is uniform over a semester, and it might be difficult for students to remember how they studied several weeks ago, so they might overstate their study approaches when they are closer to exam time and hence studying more. However, some elegant work by Diane Bunce in chemistry has shown that students who stated that they adopt what might be considered favourable study approaches performed better in examinations. Lewis himself has done fantastic work on using text messaging, sampling students at regular intervals over the semester, asking them about recent study work. He has reported three different categories of study – students who knowingly did no study, students who completed course work activities and saw that as study, and students who studied additional components. Predictably, the students in the last category performed better in their examinations.
Another way of considering how students study is by categorising them as undertaking “deep” approaches and “surface” approaches to study. Deep study approaches involve studying materials with the purpose of making connections with the material and what learners already know, seeking a deeper understanding. Surface approaches focus on memorising content for the purpose of reciting it in examinations. In general terms, such as in the Bunce study mentioned, students who adopt deep approaches tend to perform better in examinations, but the situation is complex, because any overall study strategy will necessarily involve combinations of deep and surface approaches at different times. A student might really want to dive into their thermodynamics content to understand what is going on, but ultimately will need to learn off the Second Law to use it in assessment.
Another way of thinking about study approaches, and one that is useful in the context of generative learning is the work from Sinapuelas and Stacy. Their work describes a framework for learning approaches in chemistry, and they come up with four levels: (1) gathering facts; (2) learning procedures; (3) confirming understanding; and (4) applying ideas.
A student completing Level 1 study is seeking the answer to a question to check that they are right, or to learn facts for repeating in an exam. A student at level 2 is seeking to learn procedures so as to achieve the correct answer. Students in this category will typically use additional materials to learn concepts and procedures so as to perform well in examinations.
At Level 3, a student is seeking understanding. A key difference in this level is that students have checked facts and understanding, but now seek to explore this understanding through discussion with peers and teacher and talking about why a particular approach/statement ins correct. From the perspective of generative learning theory, this action of confirming is powerful – the student is moving from seeking the correct information from others to taking action to test and confirm their own understanding. This shift marks the difference between a surface and a deep approach.
Advising students on study approaches
The literature described above from chemistry education highlights that considering study approaches is complex, but in discussing with students, there are clear messages that recur, and relate to the more general literature on study. Drawing on this and some lovely recent work on study approaches of successful students, some suggestions are listed below.
- Define study periods in your schedule
Independent work at university will involve both work necessary for ongoing tasks – typically laboratory reports in chemistry – and work necessary to learn and understand chemical concepts. A common error is that students spend far too much time on the first activity, and not enough on the second. It is important to be pro-active in protecting part of independent study time devoted to study, and separate that from the time devoted to writing laboratory reports. Tutorial preparation can be considered study time.
- Focus on quality of study, not quantity
Study time is likely valuable time in the week, and it is important to ensure that this time is used efficiently. Time on task does not necessarily relate to performance if that time is poor quality study. Quality study, as highlighted below, emphasises sense making and confirming your understanding, so avoid large amounts of study time should not be devoted to simply recovering material such as watching full lecture captures or highlighting, re-reading, (or worse, re-writing) notes. These approaches can feel virtuous, but if they are the sole approach to study, they are likely going to be unsuccessful.
- Sense-check new content during the first study session
When approaching new material for the first time, ask: “What am I doing?” “Do I understand it?” It can be useful to write out a short synopsis about a lecture or a topic, or even better to give an overview to a study-peer. The task here is not to show that everything is known or understood, but rather to actively identify what is unclear. Then the approach becomes active, as the task now becomes: “What can I use to help?” The student is moving into Level 2 approach described above, but with an awareness that will allow transfer into Level 3, as the goal is on seeking understanding and subsequently confirming understanding.
- Process material actively
Working through lecture notes to develop understanding requires active processing – doing something to make it personal. Simply re-reading or highlighting means that there is little activity. It is more productive to annotate notes, highlighting what is difficult or where something is not understood, how content relates to that elsewhere, notes from text etc. Difficulties are expected, and the task then becomes one of using available resources to help understand difficult topics – this might be rewatching a segment of a lecture capture and/or looking at textbook section and annotating notes. The intention is to work on the set of notes so that they develop continually. This will be especially useful when it comes to reviewing notes again closer to examination time. This means that as these difficulties become understood, it is possible to monitor the development of understanding in a particular topic.
- Adaptability is important
Much is made of making study “habits” and indeed it is very important to make the process of sitting down to study at university a regular occurrence that should be part of a weekly timetable. Lots of literature on study demonstrate the importance of adaptability in studying within a well-defined study timetable. For example, preparing for time away from usual study environment means making sure that resources are prepared for the different study environment in advance. Confirming understanding on different topics might need different strategies depending on the topic – some might need a textbook, but others might need an appointment with the lecturer. It’s also important to consider assessment requirements –assessments will necessitate learning material off, and therefore approaches to that will need to be coupled with the approaches that favour deeper understanding. These include cue cards, regular self-testing, and explaining to others. It is important to remember though that these are just one aspect of study, important for the components of assessment that require recall (e.g. typical equations, etc).
- Approaches to confirming understanding
The key difference between a student who is studying to pass an exam and one who is studying to do that but also understand the material is the process of confirming understanding. This involves checking understanding by trying out questions, discussing in tutorials, and conversing with peers. If something is understood from lecture notes, does reading the equivalent material in textbooks through up new perspectives or additional queries. These are ways to check the extent of understanding. As anyone teaching will report, the level of understanding is rarely “complete”, it just becomes ever more nuanced.
- Past exam papers
Past exam papers are a fantastic resource but the sequence they are used in study indicates a lot about students approach to study. Students studying exam questions en masse and seeking the answers are likely to be checking that they can do past exam papers. Students confirming understanding and checking the extent of it will seek out particular exam questions on the topic the want to explore are likely to have a greater understanding of the topic. Indeed, the very process of aligning exam questions with particular topics demonstrates an understanding of that topic, and an awareness of how it can be assessed.
 Wittrock, M. C. (1994). Generative Science Teaching, in The Content of Science: A Constructivist Approach to its Teaching and Learning, Fensham P. J., Gunstone, R. F. and White, R. T. (eds), Falmer Press.
 Bunce, D.M., Komperda, R., Schroeder, M.J., Dillner, D.K., Lin, S., Teichert, M.A. and Hartman, J.R., 2017. Differential use of study approaches by students of different achievement levels. Journal of Chemical Education, 94(10), pp.1415-1424.
 Ye, L., Oueini, R., Dickerson, A.P. and Lewis, S.E., 2015. Learning beyond the classroom: using text messages to measure general chemistry students’ study habits. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 16(4), pp.869-878.
 Sinapuelas, M.L. and Stacy, A.M., 2015. The relationship between student success in introductory university chemistry and approaches to learning outside of the classroom. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(6), pp.790-815.
 Rovers, S.F., Stalmeijer, R.E., van Merriënboer, J.J., Savelberg, H.H. and De Bruin, A.B., 2018. How and Why Do Students Use Learning Strategies? A Mixed Methods Study on Learning Strategies and Desirable Difficulties With Effective Strategy Users. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02501.
("Studying" by scubasteveo on Flickr (CC BY 2.0))