The Study Guide

When I left industry to be a teacher in the mid 1990s, I took a class on “mathematics teaching methods” at a local college. The instructor, now the Emeritus Professor of Mathematics Richard Evans to whom I owe much gratitude, taught that prior to an exam, one should give students a “study guide” or “review sheet.”

As most know, a study guide is a simple document that articulates what content you feel is important, describes what you will be assessing on the exam, and helps students focus their studying/review in the form of a checklist. When done right, the study guide is not “spoon feeding” nor teaching to a test, rather, a way of helping students define and prioritize what could be a seemingly boundless cloud of new material from the book, lectures notes, homework and other sources. It eliminates one of the causes of variance in exams scores—the students not knowing what’s covered.

Before every exam, I write about a page, usually in bullet form, which is posted on Blackboard. The last 10 minutes of the class prior to the exam is dedicated to discussing this guide.

I see the study guide as a contract that states the material to which I am committing on the exam, and from which I am not allowed to deviate too broadly when writing questions. For example, occasionally I write what I consider to be a “good” exam question that later must be vetoed upon consulting my study guide (“that just wouldn’t be fair”). From the students’ point of view, the study guide gives an opportunity to spend time preparing the “right stuff” and a chance to succeed on the exam. (Who doesn’t like to work hard and achieve something?)

With the students dialed in to what I want to assess on the exam, this permits me to write challenging (and often open-ended) questions that allow me to drill down to understand exactly what students do and do not know. But open-ended questions in assessment will be a topic for a future post.

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2 Responses to The Study Guide

  1. Arthur Lewin says:

    I find that when I give a study guide covering the objective content of a particular book, I am faced with a Catch-22. Because I have provided a list of say 50 questions that a student should be able to answer after reading the book, and since the students were told beforehand that these are the only questions I will ask from the book, many simply fill out and memorize the answers to the questions listed.

    Now knowing that they had the list of questions I end up feeling free to ask them any of those questions and expecting them to know the answer, whereas if I had not been so specific beforehand, I would never have asked many of the more detailed questions that I feel free to, and in fact compelled to, ask. Meanwhile students with good memories tend to do better than those who don’t. And somehow the whole thing seems kind of rote.

  2. Susan Chambre says:

    While I agree with Will, I share Arthur’s thoughts.

    Besides, I thought one of my jobs as a student was to figure out myself what’s important.

    But, I’ll try doing a study guide for my intro to provide some guidelines.

    Susan Chambre

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