One of the more challenging tasks for faculty, especially new faculty, is how to help a student who is struggling academically. Most of our students come to us having navigated 16 plus years of schooling successfully. They figured out ways to study and be successful. However, in my experience, when students start to struggle early in PA education, frequently it is because their previous methods of studying are now not working.
Graduate-level professional clinical, educational training is different than undergraduate or conventional graduate school. Our students are in class or engaged every day for upwards of 6-12 hours. The content load is heavy, moves quickly, and leaves little time for students to figure things out once they start having difficulty. So, what is our role, and how can we best support our students when they start to struggle academically?
According to the literature, both faculty and students have a modest knowledge of optimal and evidence-based study strategies (Hunter & Lloyd, 2018; Morehead, Rhodes & Delozier, 2016). In my work with new and experienced faculty and students, I sense we all can agree on this point. However, when a student shows up after failing an exam and is at her wit's end as to what she is doing wrong in her studying, sometimes it is hard to know what questions to ask and how to guide her. So let’s start by looking at some factors that play a role in student study strategies and how we can foster and encourage our students to use evidence-based effective methods shown to increase comprehension, retention, and performance.
There is much research on how students study. Most research looks at the when, how, and the what of student studying. However, other important factors must be considered. Those factors include whether students study alone or in groups, how long, and the number of distractions, especially from digital devices. Here are some key findings from the research.
Students do not choose or use the best study habits that support learning and retention based on what we know from the research. Studies show that many students are interested in changing their study habits, especially when struggling. However, although the intention is there, it frequently does not translate into action (Rowell et al., 2021). Instead, students tend to continue with more familiar and passive approaches (Rowell et al., 2021; Stanton, Neider, Gallegos, & Clark, 2015).
As teachers, we have come to learn the importance of active versus passive learning with how and what we do as part of our teaching strategies. So it should come as no surprise that when we look at study strategies, those considered active are also the most effective (Dunlosky et al., 2013; Rowell et al., 2021; Weimer, 2021). Passive study strategies include reading, highlighting, re-reading, reviewing, and transcribing or re-writing lecture notes. Active study approaches include:
In addition, decreasing distractions while studying also supports effective learning and retention (Rowell et al., 2021). Research has also provided evidence that these evidence-based study strategies positively correlated with a student’s GPA (McCabe & Lummis, 2018).
Faculty can and need to play a role in helping students to learn how to study better. It starts with us learning about those evidence-based study strategies that have been proven to be effective and sharing them with our students, both in our classes and when a struggling student shows up in our office (please see reference list).
An essential concept to keep in mind is that how students study results from a combination of decisions, behaviors, and habits, both internally and externally influenced. It then becomes essential for us as educators to think more holistically when seeking to guide a struggling student (Hora & Oleson, 2017). Consider your course and perhaps take time, in the beginning, to talk about which evidence-based study strategies will be best suited for your course, given the nature of the material and your expected learning outcomes.
A common recommendation in PA education is for students to be in a study group. In fact, research shows that study groups can benefit student learning if done correctly. For study group guidelines, McCabe & Lummis (2018) recommend keeping the group small at five or less, including friends and others, meeting more frequently for shorter periods, establishing clear expectations for each study session, and using evidence-based study strategies. So as teachers, consider providing such guidelines to help students structure their study group to work effectively.
It is also essential for faculty to know what resources are available through their institutions for student support with study habits, time management, and test-taking skills. In addition, students may need more involved services such as tutoring or evaluation for accommodation.
When it comes to helping our students who are struggling academically, it is vital to step back and look at the entire picture. Therefore, it can be beneficial to inquire about their study habits, approaches, and other contextual factors, such as distractions during studying and external situations that may interfere with a student’s ability to perform optimally. Our role is to help students become better learners as well as competent physician assistants. Therefore, becoming knowledgeable ourselves about the effective evidence-based study strategies and sharing and encouraging our students to use them seems like a win for everyone.
A few years back, I developed a list of questions for faculty when students came to their offices seeking help because they were academically struggling. I have provided this list (Suggested Questions for Student Study Strategies) and a link to a handout you may find helpful and use with your students (Study Strategies for Better Grades).
Blasiman, R. N., Dunlosky, J., & Rawson, K. A. (2017). The what, how much, and when of study strategies: comparing intended versus actual study behavior. Memory, 25(6), 784-792.
DeWinstandly, P. A., & Bjork, E. L. (2004). Processing strategies and the generation effect: Implications for making a better reader. Memory and Cognition, 32(6), 945-955.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, Ml J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.
Hora, M. T. & Oleson, A. K. (2017). Examining study habits in undergraduate STEM courses from a situative perspective. International Journal of STEM Education, 4(1), 1-19.
Hunter, A. S., & Lloyd, M. E. (2018). Faculty discuss study strategies, but not the best ones: A survey of suggested exam preparation techniques for difficulty courses across disciplines. Scholarship of teaching and learning in Psychology, 4(2), 1-5-114.
McCabe, J. A., &Lummis, S. N. (2018). Why and how do undergraduates study in groups? Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 4 (1), 27-42.
Morehead, K., Rhodes, M. G., & DeLozier, S. (2016). Instructor and student knowledge of student strategies. Memory, 24(2), 257-271.
Rohrer, D. (2012). Interleaving helps students distinguish among similar concepts. Educational Psychology Review, 24(3), 355-367.
Rowell, S. F., Frey, R. F., & Walck-Shannon, E. M. (2021). Intended and actual changes in study behavior in an introductory and upper-level psychology course. Teaching of Psychology, 48, (2), 165-174
Stanton, J. D., Neider, X. N., Gallegos, I. J. & Clark, N. C. (2015). Differences in metacognitive regulation in introductory biology students: When prompts are not enough. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 18(2), Article 15. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.14-08-0135
Weimer, M. (2021). An update on study strategies. The Teaching Professor. Retrieved from https://www.teachingprofessor.com/topics/for-those-who-teach/an-update-on-study-strategies
Weimer, M. (2018). Study strategies: What the research tells us. The Teaching Professor. Retrieved from https://www.teachingprofessor.com/topics/student-learning/study-stratgies/study-strategies-what-the-research-tells-us/