Friday, April 6, 2007

Three Little Questions

For our campus, it is just over three weeks until exams begin.  My students who have been working with me throughout the semester are right on schedule with their additions each week to outlines, reading assignments for class, review for exams, and practice questions.  Most of them are calm enough that they are making solid decisions about all of their tasks and the time allotted for each task.

However, I am concerned about the students who have arrived belatedly on my doorstep or who are in trouble and have not yet come for help.  At this point in the semester, I encourage all students to ask three little questions about everything that they do:

  1. What is the payoff on exams of what I am doing right now?  (And, if minimal, what would have more payoff?)
  2. Is what I am doing right now the most efficient use of time?  (And, if not, what would be more efficient?)
  3. Is what I am doing right now the most effective way of doing this task?  (And, if not, what would be more effective?)

If a study task has little or no payoff for exams, then the student needs to re-think the approach.  For example, re-reading every case in the course usually has little or no payoff since exams focus on application to new facts rather than on close inspection of cases.  On the other hand, reviewing an outline or doing practice questions would both have big payoffs.  By asking the question, a student should realize she needs to drop the first approach and focus on the other two tasks. 

Even a big payoff task can be done inefficiently if one is not careful.  For example, doing practice questions before any review of the material may be totally inefficient as a first step to studying because the student will not have the knowledge base to test understanding accurately.  On the other hand, asking a professor questions after reviewing a single topic would be more efficient than storing up all questions to the end of review for all topics.

A student may choose a big payoff task and do it efficiently, but still not have the studying be effective.  Reviewing outlines is a big pay-off item.  And, reviewing them early in the study process (rather than cramming) is a very efficient use of time.  However, reviewing topics that have already been learned well and avoiding the difficult topics would be ineffective in the scheme of preparing all topics for the exam. 

Efficiency and effectiveness sometimes overlap.  Studying the difficult topics when the student is most alert during the day would be both efficient (a wise use of those hours) and effective (more will be understood and retained when the student is alert). 

I find that students who are stressed at this time of the semester often despair over difficult courses unless they can get more control over their studying.  These three little questions help them to critique their study tactics and replace bad choices with better choices.  (Amy Jarmon)

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Exams - Studying, Miscellany | Permalink

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