Studying/learning resources for students – what to share?

LearnI’m working on some information to share with my students about studying/learning strategies. (Note – in my current position, I’m teaching classes to students who have at least one year of university under their belts.) I keep wanting to expand it, but I fear that the chances of students actually reading it are inversely proportional to its length! I am posting it here so that I can get constructive feedback, and hopefully other folks might be able to use some of it (as students or instructors). (Some aspects are specific to the University of Windsor/microbiology, but most of this is pretty general.)

Some studying/learning tips/resources:

I am often asked how to best study (for my classes, and others). Certainly, many students in microbiology have already developed effective studying/learning strategies for university classes, but here are some points about learning that might be helpful:

1) Read Dr. Robert Leamnson’s* great document about learning: Learning – your first job [.doc] (posted with various endorsements here: While geared towards first-year students, it’s relevant at any stage.

2) Incorporate active study strategies in your learning (rather than relying only on passive ones, such as reading the textbook). Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons are the researchers who gave us the selective attention experiment (worth checking out if you’re not already familiar with it): Selective attention test [YouTube] (Research described in: Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (1999). Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception, 28(9), 1059-1074.)

Chabris and Simons wrote a book (“The Invisible Gorilla: How our Intuitions Deceive Us”, 2010 MJF Books) which describes selective attention, and common illusions people have in terms of memory, knowledge, confidence, etc. I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand more about how we think/behave, and am introducing this  here as I wanted to share (quote) a portion talking about the “illusion of knowledge”, the common situation where people think they know more than they actually do (emphasis mine):

“We sometimes encounter students who come to our offices and ask how they could have worked so hard but still failed our tests. They usually tell us that they read and reread the textbook and their class notes, and that they thought they understood everything well by the time of the exam. And they probably did internalize some bits and pieces of the material, but the illusion of knowledge led them to confuse the familiarity that they had gained from repeated exposure to the concepts in the course with an actual understanding of them. As a rule, reading text over and over again yields diminishing returns in actual knowledge, but it increases familiarity and fosters a false sense of understanding. Only by testing ourselves can we actually determine whether or not we really understand” (Chabris & Simons, page 122).

Reading is important, but on its own, may not result in meaningful learning. The learning objectives, study guide questions/activities, and textbook questions give you with opportunities to test yourself. Working through these things (ideally, on a regular basis) can also give you an idea of what questions to ask your professor (see #4)!

(See also the post from Annie Murphy Paul discussing that highlighting/underlining is NOT a very effective learning strategy. She’s also posted a number of other useful items on teaching/learning.)

3) If you’re dealing with personal issues that are affecting your studies, there are resources available. These resources exist because people face all sorts of medical/psychological/emotional/family/other challenges – this happens to everyone, at some point. Some of these resources may support students throughout their studies, while others may help you get through a specific (temporary) situation. I have seen some students be reluctant to use these services (for a variety of reasons), but they can be incredibly helpful, and I would argue that it’s a courageous and sensible choice to explore any possibly relevant support options to help you in your academic career.

Full list of UWin student support services, including UWin Student Disability Services and the Student Counselling Centre.

The Unabridged Student Counseling Virtual Pamphlet Collection

4) Take advantage of office hours! Ask me questions. Or even visit just to chat about microbiology and use the vocabulary! (Learning biology has some similarities to learning a new language – and practice is key to learning!) Also (or, alternatively), meet regularly with classmates to ask each other questions, try to explain concepts to one another … and practice your microbiology vocabulary …)

* University educators may also be interested in Leamnson’s book, “Thinking about Learning and Teaching: Developing Habits of Learning with First Year College and University Students”.

UPDATE: Dr. Tamara Kelly (@TLJKelly) alerted me to Deslauriers, L., Harris, S. E., Lane, E., & Wieman, C. E. (2012). Transforming the Lowest-Performing Students: An Intervention that Worked. Journal of College Science Teachng, 41 (6), 76-83. Here we see evidence of the benefits of providing a small number of specific, constructively aligned recommendations for studying was related to improved performance of students who had been targeted for intervention (i.e., those who scored in the bottom quartile on the first midterm in one course, or who failed the first midterm in the other). The recommended study strategies focused on students actively testing themselves on the stated learning goals during studying.

Acknowledgment: Picture: learn by Mark Brennan. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons cc-by-nc-sa2 licence.

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