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Because Cramming Doesn’t Work: Learning to Learn Resources for Students and Teachers

15 Jan Old Road way marker in Llandudno, North Wales.

Reporting on why cramming fails, the BBC Neurohacks column reminds us that numerous studies demonstrate that “spacing out learning was more effective than cramming for 90% of the participants who took part in one of his experiments – and yet 72% of the participants thought that cramming had been more beneficial.”  It’s the development of metacognition – being able to make judgments, informed, discerning decisions, about our learning – that activates deep learning rather than surface learning.  (In this continuum, deep learning is likened to recall, which is based on concept-based learning that develops over time, and surface learning is linked to recognition, which is learning that relies on list- and highlighting-based cramming together of facts.)

How to help our students develop college-level metacognition skills that will help them grow into studying smarter? 

Addressing this question begins with we who are instructors reminding ourselves how to support recall-based learning over time – and thinking about ways to design these practices into our courses, whether within interactive lectures and class discussions, or embedded into the processes we require students to engage in completing assignments and preparing for tests.

We’ve selected two sets of video resources – from the far too many available via YouTube – as beneficial to both learners and teachers.

As a primer, consider College Info Geek’s “Study Less, Study Smart – An Hour Of Sage Advice Packed Into 6 Minutes,” which sets out examples linked to seven strategies:

  1. Break studying down into chunked sessions
  2. Create a dedicated study area
  3. Study actively (and sleep well)
  4. Take smart notes and expand on them right after class
  5. Summarize/teach what you learn
  6. Use your books correctly – SQ3R method
  7. Use mnemonics to study effectively

As a deeper study – one you can spread out for review over a couple of days as a teacher, and structure into student learning activities across a few weeks, we’ve selected Stephen Chew’s video series “How to Get the Most Out of Studying,” which he introduced to a UMinnesota audience of instructors as part of a session titled: “Why Do Academics Do Research Like Scholars but Teach Like Dummies?”

Drawing on his scholarly research and teaching experience, Chew created this series of five videos for first year college students – and their teachers – to address “the tenacious misconceptions about learning that students bring with them into the classroom.”  In parallel, Chew helps teachers understand that we can teach in ways to assist students in lessening errors in metacognition and to build class sessions that help identify and redirect misconceptions regarding subject content.

Chew’s own description of the enterprise addresses ways the videos are useful to students and teachers:

The videos represent both the latest in cognitive research on how people learn and my many years of experience teaching undergraduates. My approach is different from the popular collections of tips, gimmicks and folk wisdom one sees in most books and videos on studying.

I present basic principles of how people learn and I try to correct counterproductive misconceptions so that students can improve their learning by devising their own effective study strategies. These videos should help students identify effective and ineffective study strategies so they understand that, although there is no magic bullet, they can learn to get maximal learning out of their study time.

Although the videos are aimed at students, I believe they are a valuable resource for teachers as well.

Of course, there’s the immediate practicality of incorporating the videos as support resources students can opt to or be required to consult in learning how to prepare for course work.  Already into course terms, a teacher might incorporate students’ attention to the videos as part of scaling up to a next or course-ending major exam.  In viewing the videos and accompanying sample Think-Pair-Share concept tests, instructors will learn more about how learning happens – specifically about the role of metacognition in learning, the ways our beliefs about learning can also interfere with the work of learning and of teaching.  

Chew provides a set of starting-out TPS prompts for teachers to adapt or incorporated in whole.  As he notes, using formative assessment during teaching is vital to reducing the impact of poor metacognition. These quick-to-use, low-stakes questions require students to show their levels of learning relative to the subject matter, and the responses surfaced in student responses will help teachers gain a sense of just which misconceptions to address right now – just in time teaching.  With insights about learning and from formative assessments, a teacher can make choices about how to assist an individual student or a whole class of students in new learning.  The questions, like the videos, can be incorporated into Moodle as required or optional quizzes, or can be brought into a class session with the concept questions answered via the range of personal responses systems available to teachers.

As a resource for students, the videos powerfully pair learning about the work of learning with strategies that can boost the effectiveness of study practices.  For teachers, these resources serve to introduce us to scholarly information about how learning works while providing practical examples of how to “check in on” learning to reveal misconceptions.  

Chew’s “How to Get the Most Out of Studying” series is accompanied by helpful instructor-oriented resources.  In addition to the  5-part video series, instructors might access resources, including Think-Pair-Share Activities, sample prompts, and questions, review an interview with Chew, who addresses pacing & design of lectures to support learning, and/or opt to draw the newer introduction to the series, Developing a Mindset for Successful Learning, into your course for a one-shot review of studying smart strategies that will help students develop metacognitive thinking skills suitable to college-level learning.

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