Monday, May 29, 2017

Dear Future Student...

As we wrap up yet another quarter, I imagine many instructors giving advice to students on how to prepare for their final exams, not only in their class but other classes as well. I also offered students my “pearls of wisdom” on how to prepare for math exams: re-read the text and your notes, go back to old exams and quizzes, find your weak areas and practice, practice, practice. And no all-nighters!

Recently, I came across an article by Maryellen Weimer about giving students advice on studying. She said that she was observing a class, and as the students were packing up to leave the instructor mentioned that there was a test next week, and handed out a sheet to use for review. Suddenly, the students stopped what they were doing and sat down to read this handout. Rather than a list of do’s and don’ts from the instructor, the list included recommendations from students who had taken the class the previous term. Do students listen to our advice on how to study? No? Maybe they’ll listen to former students.

Weimer writes, “I was even more taken back by the insightful advice former students offered.

“Come to class regularly. He goes over problems in class very much like ones that show up on the exam.”

“Don’t wait until the night before the exam to start doing the homework problems. Do the problems every week.”

“If you don’t understand something, ask about it. Chances are good you aren’t the only one who doesn’t understand.”

“It helps to check homework with somebody else in class, not to copy answers, but to see how they did the problem.”

Students gave the very same advice I’d heard countless professors offer, but I never saw students taking our study advice this seriously.”

What if, at the end of this quarter, you ask your students to write a “Dear Future Student” letter that you can give students the next quarter? I believe it would give your current students an opportunity to reflect on the strategies that they use (or should have used) to be successful in your class. Weimer also suggests that we ask our current students to share their study strategies. Ask students to submit this advice and create a small poster for your classroom. Make sure you give the class credit (this advice was submitted by students in Math 142) and even credit students with their permission.

By the way, the instructor who was being observed? He told Weimer that “he started including advice from students who had struggled in the class. Many of them wrote candidly about things they’d done that didn’t work and things they’d do differently if they were taking the course again.” Even if - and especially if - a student is struggling, we can encourage them to reflect on their role as a learner in your class by thinking about both successful and unsuccessful strategies. I recently spoke to a student who took a basic math class with me a few years ago. His struggles were with time management (a nice way to say he wasn’t very committed to coming to class everyday) and lack of persistence. When I saw him he told me that he now looks back at that person and recognizes what he needed to do to be successful, made changes in later quarters, and shared that he has been accepted into a Bachelors program. The candid nature of my conversation with this former students made me realize the value of reflective student advice for future students.

If you try this in your class, let us know how it works.

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