“How should I study for your test?” is the number one question students have for me hands down. Every time I field this question I want to respond, “How should I know? If I took the test I’d ace it. Not to mention I came to class everyday, I’ve read our text at least five times, and to top it all off, I wrote the damn thing. It’s been over a decade since I took intro. I can’t for the life of me remember how it felt to be a beginning sociology learner. In fact, I might be the worst person you could ask that question to.”

While I’ve wanted to say that to a student just to take in their expression, I would never because helping beginning students learn sociology is what my job is all about.

That said, I still think helping students develop good study skills is one of the harder tasks we all face. We have an “expert mind” compared to our student’s “beginner’s mind”. To you and I everything we discuss is interconnected, but to many of our students everything is small bits of info that are loosely joined to one another. So how do we overcome these hurdles and help students?

One of the best discussions of how to help students prepare for exams came to me last November on the TeachSoc Google Group[1] from Kathleen McKinney of Illinois State University. Her words summed up my approach better than I ever could[2] :

In terms of study tips for my [multiple choice] exams, I talked about active reading and listening. I explained that my MC questions were not simple memory/’spit-back’ questions but rather application/example/story problem questions. This was a struggle for them. So, I explained that when studying, memorizing definitions or ideas or results was step 1, rephrasing those things in their own words but ‘correctly’ was step 2, understanding my or book examples was step 3, generating their own, original and ‘correct’ examples/applications of terms and ideas was step 4, and correctly recognizing new examples/applications in my MC test story problem exams was step 5 (in terms of learning and doing well on the exam)…

I couldn’t agree more with Kathleen; a big step in the right direction is getting students to move from passively reading/listening toward a more active approach. Too often students sit through class or read through the book and just let the information waft over them while they nod their heads knowingly. The problem is, if nodding your head is the most active part of your listening/studying, you are probably going to struggle on the test.

I want to encourage students to take an active studying approach and also help them develop the skill. To this end I put together a handout for theme explaining the approach in detail (download it here). While the handout goes into more detail below is a bulleted outline of my approach.

  1. Understand a concepts definition (this is where many students stop)
  2. Rephrase the concept in your own words
  3. Apply the concept to your life
  4. Come up with an example of your own
  5. Look for concept pairs (i.e. concepts that are opposites, complementary, etc.)
  6. If the concept has a pair, compare and contrast the two.

Beyond active studying, I encourage students to study together, because you often need someone to double check the definitions you rephrase, your applications, examples, and your analysis of concept pairs. That is, if you incorrectly understand the concept, inaccurately rephrase the concept in your own words, misapply the term to your life, etc., then actively studying won’t help you. Studying in groups increases the likelihood that studying mishaps will be identified and rectified.

I’d love to hear how do you help your students prepare for exams either in the comments, on our Facebook page, on Twitter (@SociologySource), or send me an email Nathan@SociologySource.com

  1. Which, if you teach sociology, you should join. Watch this video I made to learn how to join.  ↩

  2. Kathleen gracious gave me permission to reprint her thoughts here.  ↩