282. Moving the Needle

The study techniques that most college students adopt do not align with what research tells us about how we learn. In this episode, Sheela Vermu and Adrienne Williams join us to discuss what happens when an instructor in a community college biology class attempts to encourage students to adopt evidence-based study methods. Sheela is a biologist at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove. Illinois. Adrienne is a biologist at the University of California, Irvine.

Show Notes


John: The study techniques that most college students adopt do not align with what research tells us about how we learn. In this episode, we discuss what happened when an instructor in a community college biology class attempts to encourage students to adopt evidence-based study methods.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guests today are Sheela Vermu and Adrienne Williams. Sheela is a biologist at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove. Illinois. Adrienne is a biologist at the University of California, Irvine. They are co-authors of a study entitled “Moving the Needle: Evidence of an Effective Study Strategy Intervention in a Community College Biology Course.” Welcome, Sheela and Adrienne.

Sheela: Thank you.

Adrienne: Thank you.

John: Today’s teas are:… Are you either of you drinking tea?

Sheela: Yes, I am.

Adrienne: We heard that was a thing.

John: And what type of tea?

Sheela: I’m actually drinking my favorite tea. It’s called A Sama tea. It’s a calm relaxed, lavender, rose, chamomile and cardamom.

Rebecca: You just describing it just took my blood pressure down. It sounds very relaxing. [LAUGHTER]

Sheela: I was doing it for myself. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Well, you helped me too. [LAUGHTER]

Adrienne: I can’t compete with that. But I have a classic Trader Joe’s pomegranate white tea.

John: Very nice.

Rebecca: I think, John, today was my closest call of not having tea. Because when I got home to record about an hour ago, we had no water at my house. The water was off, but it’s on now. And I have a Scottish afternoon tea.

John: And I have a black raspberry green tea, which I haven’t had for a while but it’s nice.

Rebecca: Yeah, that is one that you haven’t had in a while.

John: I had it last time when I was in quarantine at home, [LAUGHTER] which is where I am now with COVID.

Rebecca: It’s like you’ve established quarantine routines. [LAUGHTER]

John: Unfortunately, yes, this is my second time. We’ve invited you here today to discuss the study that you both worked on. One of the things that you noted in the study itself is that there’s relatively few studies of student study strategies at the community college level. Even though community colleges provide an introductory college experience to over half of all the students that graduate with a bachelor’s degree in STEM fields. Could you give us a brief overview of your study?

Sheela: Thank you, John, for asking that question. Because it sort of made me think about what really brought about my interest in studying this topic. It stemmed from me becoming a community college Bio Insights Fellow, and Insights is a network of community college instructors who are actually interested in investigating teaching and learning in their classroom. So when I became a fellow in that network, one of the goals was for us to think about what are some teaching practices that could inform the scholarship of teaching and learning in a community college setting. And I teach microbiology and anatomy and physiology at Waubonsee Community College. And while I was starting to teach, I realized that students really struggled to study effectively. And community colleges occupy a very important position in higher ed, especially in STEM because they provide low cost training and education for workforce training, preparation for transfer, and also recently an opportunity to reskill for many of our underemployed and our underserved students and population. So keeping that in mind and our classroom structure, we noticed that in the biology education field, papers or authorships for community college faculty, in a CC context was very few, only 1- 3% of all the biology education research articles had a community college context question or a community college. So this network sort of enriched me to think about what do I need to ask a question in the classroom that would encourage my students to use better study strategies? So in some ways, I wanted to ask this question, but it was the Insights that helped me think about this from the scholarship of teaching purposes. So the brief overview of what we see as the basic study of this paper, is we were really wanting to ask this question, what kind of study strategies students are using in a community college context right now in a biology classroom that I teach, that was one… and can an intervention of some kind from an instructor really intentionally encourage students to reflect upon their current study strategies and guide them in some ways to change their strategies to ones that have been shown through research to have high impact. So it was to just gauge the field, but also to see if we can gently intentionally guide that providing guiding practices. And that’s sort of the big picture of what we did. But we administered a pre- and a post- survey. The pre- and post- survey was taken from a previously published work. The survey actually asked questions about the study habits and the study strategies that students actually used. The intervention was administered. And one of the things that is really important is I was able to get approval from our college institutional effectiveness team, and those are the ones that serve as the institutional review board and they look at the studies research paper and also helped assist with gathering institutional data, because institutional data was very meaningful to our study. And Adrienne helped arrange the statistical power. That is what made a big difference in the study. And she also helped me wrap it up and write it up and get it published in the CBE Life Science Education journal.

Rebecca: So a lot of students enter college and plan to acquire a STEM degree but often change their mind or change their plans. Which students are disproportionately likely to give up on their planned STEM degree.

Adrienne: In general, regardless of institutions, students have a difficult time with a STEM degree. They tend to give lower grades and that can be very discouraging for students, even if they’ve done well in high school… when they get to college, and they start to not get A’s can be very discouraging. So there is a history for all undergraduates, when they enter even a four-year or a two-year program that they start to leave STEM. They find it less rewarding than they had thought, I would say community colleges have additional hurdles to overcome, because they are an open access system. And so they get students with a wide variety of past experiences. Some are people who’ve just come out of high school and are used to studying and are pretty on top of things… they remember their math, they’re accustomed to memorizing things. And then there are students that are adult learners, or perhaps have families, been in the military, perhaps they get a GED and have worked for awhile. And so there’s a lot of habits to relearn. That can cause problems, particularly in STEM where the grading is just historically rather harsh.

Sheela: I would agree with what you said about historically STEM attrition is pretty problematic. But the problem is also more exaggerated in marginalized and minoritized students who come from backgrounds that could have been a first generation, some kinds of a financial issues, students who probably did not have a whole lot of high school curriculum that prepared them well for a STEM field. And there’s been recent work in 2016, that talked about how the National Academies needed to look at improving underrepresented minority students persistence in STEM, not just entry into STEM, but for them to be able to stay in the pipeline, and successfully move on and build a career trajectory for themselves.

John: We saw similar results in an earlier podcast interview with Peter Arcidiacono from Duke. He was a co-author of a study that looked at the determinants of students’ continuation in STEM fields and found something very similar: that, holding other factors constant, females and students from historically minoritized groups were much more likely to change out of the STEM fields than students who were white males, even when they were doing relatively better in these classes, then the students who chose to remain in the discipline,

Adrienne: STEM classes, particularly, are not welcoming to many students, because the exams are difficult. Now, there’s just the culture that we’ve developed, not necessarily for good reasons but it does cause many students who are doing fine, who are scoring above the mean in the class, to feel like they’re not succeeding, because they’re only getting 70-80%. And that’s just kind of an unfortunate reality that we’re working to change. But in the meantime, we would like students to be as successful as possible on their exams.

Sheela: And recently, there’s been some studies that talk about some concrete steps to diversify the scientific workforce. And that came out last year in Science, and that talked about how students in the STEM field sometimes do get discouraged, and often feel really compartmentalized by the climate and some of the teaching methods and assessment, exactly what Adrienne was talking about in the STEM classroom. And there’s been an exodus of students, specifically from the underrepresented minority communities.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the study techniques that students were using before your intervention as part of your study?

Sheela: Yeah, so when I walked into the classroom, what I noticed were that students were typically cramming the night before the exam, or perhaps two days before the exam, and they would use one study session to just get all the notes that they could for that particular unit. The other thing that I noticed students doing were, they would be using a lot of flashcards, they would walk into the classroom with a whole bag of flashcards and sometimes it would all drop and they would have color-coded flashcards, different colored highlighters. And as the classes were going on, as I would see them studying, I would see them using most of these methods which was underlining key words in the textbook or terms or in the PowerPoint and in In some ways, creating some flashcards, and massing all of this study as they thought it was in one particular session, and then just go to the exams. And I saw them a little bit frustrated thinking that they had put in so many hours into it, and not having the results that they would have expected out of those exams.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about what study techniques you recommended to students and how you convey that information to students?

Sheela: So one of the key things that I did for myself was just to get familiarized with what were some high-impact study strategies, because this was not something that I was very familiar with. And one of the things I figured out was it was distributed spacing. And in the STEM fields, especially in the subjects that I teach, like microbiology, anatomy, and physiology, we wanted students to know one concept well, before they moved on to the second concept. So if they tried to do all of this studying the night before the exam, it’s very possible that they missed out one of the pieces in the Jenga, and the whole Jenga fell apart the day of the exam. So, something that I talked about was spacing, but also making sure that spacing is not just happening two days before, but it is distributed throughout the unit that we are actually covering. And the second high-impact practice that I asked students to think about was self testing. Self testing sometimes can be difficult for students to understand, especially at our community college setting, because the kinds of self testing that they’ve been exposed to in high school, is a teacher giving them a set of practice problems, or they having 50-60 questions in a test bank, and just going over those, and in some ways, just memorizing or flash carding and making it into a Quizlet. And they would think that is self testing. So I had to go back and walk them around and say that self testing would be to self test a concept. And to double check and see, do you really understand that concept by looking at a problem or a question, which is at the end of the chapter, before going on into the next particular concept? The other piece that is also very important that high impact practices that I talked about to the students was diagramming. And this was something that I wanted them to get away from, just trying to just reread chapters, condensing chapters, and summarizing chapters. I wanted them to get away from those kinds of practices and move on to something called diagramming.

John: So what did you find in terms of the use of self testing and spaced practice, as well as the drawing applications? Was there a significant change in the student use of these techniques over the course of the semester?

Sheela: So, in the beginning, there was some resistance from the students. Because this was something difficult for them to do, they had never heard of these kinds of strategies. And as we proceeded with the intervention, which was periodic, we found that students, over the period of the entire semester, improved their spacing, so they went from high levels of cramming to high levels of spacing. We also found that self testing, which was very low in the beginning, also improved at the end of the course. Students were not creating their own questions, but instead, they were using the questions that were at the end of the textbook that were desirable for comprehension. They were using questions that were problem-solving oriented, which were part of the assessment to test themselves and diagramming also improved by the time the semester finished.

Adrienne: Let me also say something that we noticed was students were willing to give up some strategies very easily. I do similar work at my large four-year R1 institution, and students also arrive in their first quarter at UC Irvine and they’re very fond of flashcards, and tend to also be fond of underlining and highlighting. And those are two study strategies that students see kind of quickly just don’t work. The exam questions that they get in college are just not associated with things that they did on flashcards and so they’re like, “Okay, boom,” and they drop them with very little resistance. Every year I check, every year, they come in high flashcards and they leave low flashcards. They’re like, “Nope, that didn’t work.” And they’re happy to drop that. Other study strategies like rereading their notes: they come in high rereading their notes, and we tell them, that won’t help. Yes, you have to understand the concepts, but stop rereading your notes, that is not an effective study strategy. And that one doesn’t move. They’re like, “Nope, still gotta reread my notes.” And so that’s been interesting for us. I talked to Sheela about that. I talked to students about that. And so some of these strategies are easier to move than others. And I think what’s going on… we’re going to foreshadow some metacognition here in students choosing what study strategies to use. They feel like when they start their study session, they have to decide what is it that I’m going to work on and so they reread their notes as a way to set themselves up with what needs to happen in the study strategy time they have coming up, but it just takes so long to reread all their notes that they know half their times gone by the time they finished doing the setup activity. And so they’re unable to do the more useful things of self testing, explaining to others, doing things from memory, painful things. It’s also just more encouraging and soothing to look at your notes and go “Yep, yep, I remember that. Yep. Okay, yep, I remember that.” And that feels like studying, even though not really.

John: That’s sometimes referred to as fluency illusion, that the notes are familiar, you see them, you remember the organization on the page, and it’s reassuring, even though it adds virtually nothing to your ability to either recall concepts or to transfer those concepts into different applications. But it’s hard for people to give that up, especially when they’ve been told to reread their notes and reread the materials over and over again, throughout all their prior educational experience.

Adrienne: Yeah. And it worked great for him in high school. So why would they believe us until they try it and find out that it doesn’t work? So some strategies are easy.

Rebecca: So much easier when your answers are in your notes, and not from learning?

Adrienne: Well, the ironic thing is, in my classes, I’m now all open note, open Google. And so they still think the notes will be the answer to all their problems. Now, it’s all application problems.and so you can’t find all that. So it’s hard, it’s difficult for students to change, even if they know like, one of the new things I’ve started to ask is, what do you think researchers say is more effective: spacing your studying or cramming? And all the students know that spacing is more effective. And then you ask, and what did you do for this test? And they’re like, “Well, I had to cram.” So a lot of it is not lack of understanding of what should happen, but just the difficulties associated with it, just like eating right and exercise, the difficulties with actually doing the difficult work.

Rebecca: I think often students mentioned that it’s difficult to plan their time, or to have the time to do the thing that they know is good for them.

Adrienne: Which is why we’re going to again, come back to metacognition, I think, that this talk about how we’re kind of moving forward out of just asking students, how are they studying, but thinking more broadly about metacognition.

John: Before we get to that, though, could faculty reduce the incentive to cram by using more low-stakes activities so that students don’t have that incentive to cram before a high-stakes exam and ignore studying the rest of the time.

Sheela: So John, in the courses that I am teaching, we have not just one high-stakes exam, we have many small unit exams. And these unit exams come every two to three weeks. But the material in STEM, as we speak, is so dense for the students that they have to move from lower order Bloom’s… just remembering terminology… all the way to concept analysis to an explanation very quickly, in a very brief period of time. And I think even having those low-stakes assignments is not enough for them. Because those assignments, they may not choose to use the high impact study strategies, they may get away by looking at a summary, or maybe looking at the notes in the low stakes. But when they come to these unit exams, even if it’s just two chapters, I found students in my college, in my classroom, really struggling, even if the low-stakes assignments were done at a 95% completion, which is what led me to think of this study and say, what is it that I can do as an instructor, I would love to change all the dynamics of higher ed, and move things seamlessly to make it a beautiful world for everyone. But I can only control what I can do in the classroom, which is the intervention. And I think a persuasive intervention through modular use over a period of time, which is consistent, and short and brief, is a possibility that faculty could use in order to shift students’ practices of study strategies. And for them to be cognitively aware that this is a good study strategy. I’m actually aware of it. And that’s the knowledge I have from the literature, which is what Adrienne was talking about. But then how do you implement it in the moment and modify just a little bit so that you can actually get good grades in that unit exam that’s coming? Because there are five of them, you just can’t afford to blow each one of them. You have to just get gooder and gooder if there is a word like that. [LAUGHTER]

John: You mentioned working to improve students’ metacognitive skills. Could you talk a little bit about how you built in metacognition into this approach.

Sheela: So when we did the intervention, my intervention was very simple. It was a PowerPoint presentation, and it was a PowerPoint presentation before and after each exam. And we have five big exams in that course. And we had an exam wrapper as well. So the PowerPoint presentation was not just this is what you need to do. It was things from the literature of high-impact study strategies, and also being aware of what is a low-impact study strategy. And the PowerPoint presentation was 15 minutes long, it had about 15 to 16 slides. But there were some examples of how to use those strategies and how not to use them. For example, if they were looking at muscle contraction, and if they were looking at how the skeletal muscles, students know that it’s a bicep, how does the bicep actually contract instead of just making 100 flashcards of every piece of that information, which is in that unit? How can we translate that into concept, and learn each concept and see how that moves into the next concept. For example, when we think about this, you think of a motor neuron that actually stimulates a skeletal muscle like a bicep, and there are multiple segments in this piece, the neuron has to send a signal, which is an action potential, so they need to know what’s an action potential. And they also need to know the structure of the neuron. So there are two big pieces there, then it sort of travels into a terminal, and it causes some channels to open, they need to know the kind of ions that actually travel through those channels, and what causes those ions to travel from A to B. And then through that influx of those ions, they need to know there is a release mechanism. And that release mechanism causes another set of ions to open postsynaptically in the muscle. And from there, they move on into understanding how it contracts the muscle tissue or cell. So there’s a sequential activity that goes on. And for students to be able to compartmentalize that and get good at understanding each concept before they move on to the next is something that my intervention was part of. And for them not to just make all of that into a highlighting flashcard, summarizing it into three sentences and say, the neuron travels and the bicep contracts. And in the middle, there is a gap. And that’s called a synapse. And that’s what they would do when they summarize. And that’s not effective, because the questions are not summary driven. The questions are application driven. What would you do when a drug blocks that particular channel? What would happen upstream? What would happen downstream? And now they’re like, “I never thought about this much detail.” So that was the intervention. But then there was also an exam wrapper. The exam wrapper, it was more of a reflective piece. I just thought it would give students an opportunity after every exam to self reflect and see what study strategies they used. How many hours did they spend studying? What would they like to change for the next exam? And I thought it was reflective, I gathered a lot of paper and I gathered a lot of data, it’s sort of gave a quiet moment for our students to reflect on exams. But talking with Adrienne and working on this for a little while, realized that the research on exam wrappers does not show… it’s not efficacious enough to change students on how they learn. So now I’m doing something a little bit different where I’m not just doing an exam wrapper and calling it as a check in point on Canvas for them to sort of reflect after the exam, but not just using exam as the main tool, which is what shifted us to think about the next steps, which is the metacognition, which Adrienne was talking about.

Rebecca: Adrienne, do you want to share some of the details about the metacognition side of it here?

Adrienne: Yeah, I do research on my students. And it’s just been fascinating how students seemed to choose to do strategies which didn’t seem helpful. And so in additional reading that we’ve done, Sheela and I have learned more about metacognition. And you can kind of break down metacognition, in knowing what good strategies are… like, do students know that spacing and retrieval practice and interleaving? And diagramming? Do they know that those are considered the good strategies? Second, do they have the metacognitive skills to use them at the right places, or even though they know spacing is good, they never actually set up time to do the studying days in advance. And then thirdly, metacognitive judgment, do they have a sense for yes, they now know this information, can they judge their learning? Is their appropriate judgment of learning that goes on? And so all of these are steps that we realized, all we knew was which strategy students chose. We didn’t know if they had the knowledge about which ones were good ones. And we didn’t know whether or not they recognize whether or not they were successful. And so we’ve expanded our questions to students: do you know which strategies are successful? …and pretty much they do. That doesn’t seem to be the missing link. It’s the scraping together, the organization time to actually apply them early enough that they can spend the time appropriately. And we’re also trying to determine can we help students? Give them regular feedback? The exam wrappers didn’t seem to work really well. There wasn’t a lot of evidence that they were really doing a lot of changing of student behavior. So, something I’m trying this quarter, particularly in my anatomy class, is to ask students: “If I said different study strategies were worth different amounts. I said, rereading your notes is only worth 0.2 points per hour and I said, explaining concepts to a neighbor or drawing diagrams by hand of the different systems and that’s worth 1.5 points per hour, will you change how you study in order to maximize your studying points? And so we’re in the middle of that right now to see is there anything that can motivate students to attempt to try new, difficult, painful, complicated things, other than the comforting things of rereading and rewatching videos? That’s a bigger metacog picture I’m working on, Sheela’s also doing that, kind of increasing our focus away from just single study strategies to this metacognitive view, do students have the metacognitive chops? And is there anything that we can do as instructors to help them with these applications? Because once you’ve told them that spacing is important, they’re like, ”Alright, spacing is important.” But that’s not solving the problem much. It’s an important initial first step, but are they actually going to figure out how can I schedule an hour a night on my anatomy, so that I have some chances to forget and relearning, and so that relearning really kind of nails down those mental pathways, and so it’s easier for them to do the work for application problems when they get to an exam? So we’re enjoying just trying different things as we move forward, to see can we expand our understanding of metacognition. help students understand? Can they tell us what they understand and don’t understand? And can they tell us what they really struggle with in the application so that we can help reward them for doing good studying? Happy to do that.

Rebecca: Have you tried sharing a study plan for the week just to see if they followed it to see if it worked?

Sheela: Yes. And I think that’s sort of the third part of metacognition, that Adrienne was just talking about. The knowledge is one, which is the strategies that they know, and whether they can actually apply those strategies when they are thinking or listening or reading difficult tasks. That’s very important, because you can apply these strategies when it’s in your comfort zone. It is the application of these high-impact strategies when you’re out of your comfort zone, and that is really important. And that’s where the planning comes in: having a calendar and making sure you plan it, and you’re putting in the hours. But what I found in my explanations with my students is that even though they planned the time, I had students who had devoted an X number of hours, they just didn’t know when they got to the muddiest point that they were even muddled. [LAUGHTER] And that is, to me, metacognitive judgment, right? You know, that you don’t know, and you know, that you need to do something that you don’t know, and students were like, they didn’t even know they were muddled. And so they didn’t go ahead and use the appropriate strategies, or change directions, or make some adjustments one week before the exam so that they can actually monitor their learning, which is where we are working on building the set of skills, and just making sure we ask our students and see if we can shift their practices to more of a judgment outside of just planning the time. Planning the time is very important, but it’s not just planning the time. What do you do with that time? And we couldn’t be with them all the time, to sort of shift it.

Adrienne: You’re probably familiar with the idea of high-structure courses, having many assessments. And I think that is really important. It’s a lot more work for the instructor to be building all of these assessments and managing them. But the more cases where you can help students get feedback on whether or not they’re learning successfully, the more likely they’re going to realize that the thing they thought would be fine is not actually working.

John: You talked a bit about ways in which we might be able to better improve student’s understanding of effective study strategies. But did you find any impacts of the techniques that were used during this experiment? Did it make a difference for some of the students?

Sheela: The drawing did. To me, the way I was thinking of drawing was, I was thinking of it as a visual representation of a science process. That’s how I was thinking of it. But the drawing was very meaningful to the students, because students before in my class, were sketching typically, or taking a diagram or a figure from a textbook. Because most science textbooks have beautiful colored large figures, they will just take that figure and translate it into a sketch and just draw some diagrams and draw some arrows and point to some facts. But drawing the process was very important. And not only drawing the process as a flowchart, but actually organizing the conceptual information and connecting the dots. So in some ways, the way I was using drawing representation was more like a concept mapping. But I also realized that students without a lot of encouragement on how to do these concept maps or how to do these representational drawings, were not getting a lot of feedback, because they were just drawing and maybe they’re drawing it beautifully. But they were not really using that drawing to really understand and self test themselves on some of the key concepts. So this semester, what I’m actually doing is asking for our students to show some of their drawings and upload it on Canvas. And I have two or three criteria before it’s accepted as a drawing. And one would be to make sure that they have some basic notes that they have talked about, some key concepts. And then they have also asked themselves a question, which would be like a feedback, like a retrieval question using that drawing. So they’re using the drawing as a practice. And they’re using the drawing as a self-retrieval practice to ask a question. And I’m hoping that it would have some change. But the literature in the drawing area is not very clear. And I would like to use it as an if and then statement, maybe, like, you know, if this happens to the sodium, and what happens to the action potential, or maybe like a causal effect kind of statement, or sometimes maybe even say, why and how, why does this happen? And how do you think you can make it better?

Adrienne: It really does take time and scaffolding for students to be effective at something like this. You can’t just assign them a drawing or tell students you should draw more when you study. But taking the time in class to assign something, give them appropriate scaffolding, give them feedback, show them what you were imagining it would look like, asking them a test question that should have been easy to answer if the diagram had been appropriately written. And just training students, we tend to do a lot of assumption that somebody before us did the training, and that’s just not appropriate in many cases. It is really helpful to make space during class time, either by flipping the class or by flipping 10 minutes of the class, moving that outside to pre-class work so that you have time in class to train students how to think carefully and study effectively so they can be more successful going forward.

Rebecca: I think one of the themes that I’m hearing both of you point to is helping students prioritize things, there might be a sequence to knowing or what might be most important versus kind of an extraneous detail that’s not as important until you have the big thing figured out. And a lot of times when you’re new to something, these are not obvious things. But when we model how to make a diagram and verbalize how we made a decision, or how we chose what might go in a diagram, it can be really helpful and enlightening to students because they’re seeing how that thought process might work. If they’ve not experienced it for themselves.

Adrienne: It’s not like students aren’t working hard. I think we tend to think that somehow students that are doing badly in the class are slacking, and that is often not the case, they’re working very hard. But if you’re spending hours making flashcards, that’s just not as useful a thing to spend time on

Rebecca: …for hours going down a rabbit hole that’s like not actually important… [LAUGHTER] which I sometimes have had conversations with my students like “You spent how long on that? Yeah, that’s not something to worry about. Maybe you should do this other thing instead. [LAUGHTER]”

Sheela: Yeah, and color coding. And our textbooks in the sciences have a lot of colors. And the textbooks also have a lot of highlights. So in some ways, I feel that some of these high-impact study strategies are not very, very clearly explained in our textbooks. So when they see the highlighted word in a textbook, or they see the color-coded diagrams, the students often believe that that’s the secret. In one of our exams recently, I asked them to bring that color-coded diagram and see if that helps them answer the questions. And they were surprised that they could only answer 50% of the questions on the exam with that color-coded diagram. The rest had to be some kind of retrieval practice, some kind of higher-order thinking which they had not spent the time doing, because there was spending more time drawing that thing out, like a sketch.

Rebecca: …and probably essentially just copying whatever they saw. [LAUGHTER]

Sheela: and just making it look prettier. That’s it.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Adrienne: The good strategies are painful, they’re difficult and painful, and expose everything you don’t know. And they feel like you don’t understand things if you’re doing the good work. And that’s a difficult thing to fight through. Nobody likes to feel like they don’t understand.

John: I think we all face that challenge with our students.

Adrienne: Um hmm.

John: They like strategies where they could sit and passively listen to someone explain concepts to them. But that doesn’t really seem to help them remember it, but it feels good. It feels like they’re understanding every step of it. But when you’re trying something in active learning, and you’re getting feedback that tells you that “No, you don’t quite have that,” it’s certainly not as pleasant. And there’s no real way around that, other than perhaps reassuring students that that’s an important part of learning. I’ve been trying to explain that to students for years without complete success, because they much prefer to listen to a lecture or to read a book and assume that they know things until the professor tricks them with these questions that clearly are not a fair measure of their learning, and it’s a difficult cycle to break.

Adrienne: True for all humans. We like to minimize the calories we use in everything.

Rebecca: Is this a line of research you’re hoping to continue on?

Sheela: Yes, we are, as we speak, to fine tune what we learned from the study last year. By the time the study finishes and the time the paper comes out a whole long time has gone by. So that was a great time to sort of think about what are some areas and it was the exam wrappers that sort of prompted me to think about this metacognition, especially metacognitive judgment, because exam wrappers are self reported, they’re sort of reflective, and I found that students were reflecting the same thing, like I spent only 5%, doing X, it hasn’t changed from unit exam to the next unit exam. Then the question became, “Why is it that they were not able to monitor their studying, or make those adjustments as they moved forward?” So maybe for an exam on tissues, they spent 10 hours studying a certain way, but probably when they come to the nervous system, they probably need to modify that or adjust it, but students were not able to do that, based on the difficulty of the task. They were just steamrolling it. They were just doing the same thing over and over again, they said, Oh, “You told me to study X number of blocks, and you told me to study 12 hours and I’m just going to do those 12.” And that’s prompted us to think about the next steps. And we are asking this question in a community college classroom and see what kind of metacognitive skills students have. And we are dividing those skills into three parts, which is knowledge of the skill, are you aware of it, can you actually apply it, judgment would be can you apply it and monitor and change it when needed based on what’s happening in the moment, and then sort of plan and have a control on your self-regulated strategies? I think this is an uphill task, because the data that you get could be a little messy, just like most education research, but I think we’ll just have to continue and plod through it just like how we did the other one, before we get some kind of a baseline that suggests that whatever we are doing, whatever intervention we are planning to have in the classroom, has an effect. So I think of myself as a practitioner, Adrienne is also a practitioner, but she’s also a researcher. So for me, if it doesn’t make sense in the classroom, I’m very happy that it did make awesome sense in the world of research, but I would like it to really make sense in the classroom because I want to see our students benefit, move forward and have great STEM careers, however it may be.

Adrienne: I’m also doing projects. I’m continuing to work with Sheela on adding some metacognitive aspects to her class. A couple of things that I am trying to work on is an implementation strategy where I try to have students, each week, think back on the week that they’ve just completed, and how did they study on that week and so just regularly get feedback and to overtly tell them each week: these are high-impact strategies, these are low-impact, which ones did you use and what do you plan to do next? And a lot of hitting over the head, perhaps. But it takes a lot to change this for them. And secondly, I’m particularly interested in students who are studying with friends. I saw an interesting effect in my intro bio class a year ago, where students who really valued studying with friends were doing worse in the class. And so I’m attempting to figure out what’s going on there, because that was kind of non-intuitive to me. And I think it has something to do with some students really value studying with friends, because it’s an opportunity to have their friends explain the material to them. So what I’ve been asking students this past year was what do you do when you study with friends, they’re like, figure out what they’re actually spending their time doing. And some students are spending a lot of times explaining and others are spending time getting explained to and there’s different relationships in how they do in the course. That is pretty clear, though students that are in study groups in order to learn the material, that’s an indication they’ve got other struggles going on. They need help. So things like that, I’m still figuring out the best way to ask students and to figure out where the pain points are so that I, as an instructor, can say, “Alright, if you find that you like study groups because you really need somebody to help explain things to you, that is a sign that we need to help you understand the material more effectively, and get you extra help.” So both research and being a good practitioner as Sheela says.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that we don’t always recognize when we’re introducing students to strategies that are really new to them is that they’re learning that in addition to the course content at the same time, so there’s an extra layer of things that need to be learned and we need to do spaced practice and things on that, too. [LAUGHTER] Start building some habits and remember that that’s a thing that they’re also learning and remind them that that’s also a thing that they’re learning and that accounts for some time. It takes time to adopt a new set of practices. It takes time to plan [LAUGHTER] or whatever.

Adrienne: And I like to give students a small amount of points are doing it, because it’s part of the work of learning and I want to reward that, and frankly, they need the points.

Sheela: sAnd some study trategies are also discipline based. So it’s very difficult for our students, especially when they’re freshmen and sophomore, and they are in three or four different types of classes. Some are STEM-based, some are non-STEM-based, maybe their non-STEM faculties guiding them to read and create some kind of a graph or some kind of a writing narrative. And here in our STEM class, I’m saying, don’t just spend your time reading and rereading, while the other faculty is sort of giving them a different point of view.

Adrienne: They have a lot of bosses.

Sheela: Yes. And that can be very difficult for them, because they’re like, “What do I do? My other teachers telling me this, and this teacher is telling me this, and I don’t know, and I’ll just do what I know to do, which is flashcarding,”

John: We always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Sheela: To me, what I would like to do is continue this kind of education research, which is classroom based, that also has an efficacy for student improvement. These three are very important to me. But I also have an overall goal because of the CC Bio Insights network that started me to think about biology education research, is to make sure that these kinds of questions that are community college centric, asking questions that are based from a community college classroom, are also being part of the education research and part of the biology education journals published so that people can actually see what’s going on in these classrooms, and perhaps build some credibility to the work that’s done in this area. So that would be sort of my big picture, giving back to the overall community of community college and how it affects higher ed.

Adrienne: That’s great, Sheela. Yeah, what’s next is always iterations on improving my teaching, new projects for research. But I thought working with Sheela on a project like this was super helpful, both for my career, because it benefits me to publish… that’s a really important part of my job… and I have a community of people with statistical skills and experience publishing, that if I can bring that to a partnership with a community college faculty person who has access to community college students, that’s a important connection that the community college students can benefit from the research finds for them, the faculty member in the community college isn’t overwhelmed attempting to learn a whole bunch of additional publishing skills that they don’t need for their career advancement, but they still want the message to get out that I can carry some of that burden in a way that benefits me. So it’s a win-win for me, for Sheela

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. And we look forward to hearing what else you learn.

Adrienne: Thank you so much for having us.

John: And this is really important work that you’re doing because we lose so many students from the STEM fields, and the students we’re losing are the students who could gain the most if they were to be successful in the STEM fields because the rate of return to a degree in the STEM fields is so much higher than it is everywhere else and we face some serious shortages in these areas. So it’s an area in which the research could be really beneficial to a lot of people.

Adrienne:: We’ll do what we can.

Sheela: Yes, keep marching along and carry more with us.


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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.