By Christopher K. Storm
Aren't office hours wonderful? They provide an excellent forum for the professor to connect directly with their students to discuss course materials and provide enrichment. However, students do not get the most benefit out of this time if they do not know how to study the material in a mathematics course. All too frequently, a student will arrive at my office, often quite frustrated and worn down, and say they just don¹t understand the material on the midterm even though they¹ve studied for countless hours. I usually ask how they have "studied" and receive a blank look followed by some comment about reading over notes again and again.
This is when I inwardly cringe, for the student has taken a completely passive role in preparing and has not done any mathematics, wasting valuable preparation time. At this point, in the past, I would start to talk in detail about the major areas on the exam and then get the student started on working problems in my office with instructions for continuing at home. I would try to nudge the student in a more active direction.
This semester, I decided to be proactive and see if I could fix the problem before my students had spent hours "studying" instead of doing math. Before the midterms in my Calculus II and Ordinary Differential Equations classes, I instituted the Storm Study Challenge.
The challenge is simple: you are not allowed to use the word "study" in the lead up to the exam. Instead, you must phrase your plans in an active, concrete way. Asked what you are planning to do that evening, you might respond "I am going to work ten chain rule problems from the review section of my textbook and then look over some more problems to be sure I can always identify how I should break the functions up." By providing active goals, I hoped that students would be able to structure their time effectively. In addition, with such clear goals, they could better judge where they were in terms of preparedness.
Before I gave out the Study Challenge, I remarked that from time to time, I come up with ideas to help students become better learners. I did this to emphasize that this idea was meant to be something students could apply to all of their courses, not just my own. Then, I gave out the challenge. I even provided a whole string of recommended things to say instead of "I am going to study."² I also mentioned that these might be some good lines to describe an exciting Friday night. I got some laughs, and the students seemed amused but willing to try it out.
The effect was great. I had students coming to my office with specific questions on specific topics. We spent our time much more effectively, and I felt that at last my students were taking control and doing the "right" things to master the content in my courses.
On the midterms, I offered a bonus point for an honest answer to whether a student had accepted the challenge or not. In both courses, over half of the students did accept it or made an effort at it (although some students said yes, but their further comments suggested that they had missed the point of active studying). Out of curiosity, I compared how students who had accepted the challenge measured up to those who had not: there was a ten percent gap in achievement in both classes.
While I cannot claim the Study Challenge really accounted for the difference, I suspect the Challenge provided motivated students with a better understanding of how to "study" for a math exam. All in all, I considered it a great success. The Study Challenge turned my pre- and post exam office hours into more productive sessions for myself and my students.
In past courses, I created fairly comprehensive review sheets and practice exams to provide a framework for students to become active studiers. While I feel this takes some of the responsibility of studying away from the students, it has been important if I wanted good things to happen on the exams. Practice exams and review sheets implicitly direct the student to active studying, but with the Study Challenge we can make this explicit. By the end of the semester, we can just issue the Study Challenge, complete with some active studying suggestions, and then let the students create their own review sheets and search out their own review problems. Not only do students take charge of their education, but we pick up some time during a busy part of the semester for ourselves. A double bonus!
Time spent: Ten minutes making the handout and photocopying it. Three minutes giving it out and explaining the Challenge in class.
Time saved: Any time that would have been spent on making a review sheet. In addition, student studying and office hours become much more efficient, making the time spent in those activities feel far more productive and enjoyable!
Chris Storm is an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Adelphi University. He is currently a Project NExT fellow and recently completed his PhD at Dartmouth College. He teaches mathematics courses at all levels.