CRAM the right way: How to improve student learning practices – Sara Ashpole

506769516_aece6182df_mImagine one of your students comes to your office door. It’s just before their midterm examination, and full of anxiety the student claims to have studied the wrong material.  As the instructor do we have any responsibility in this situation?  I believe as instructors, one of our responsibilities is to teach in a manner that promotes  effective learning practices that will support a student in a cram scenario.  As such, the instructor provides students with all the necessary tools to facilitate higher academic achievement.

There is substantial evidence that motivated students who incorporate  effective learning practices or study strategies into their learning process demonstrate improved academic achievement. Some students have developed strong learning practices, while others struggle. Often students do not realize that effort does not equate with better grades.  While we cannot force students to take a study skills course, as instructors we can promote efficient and effective learning in our students through intelligent course and lecture design.

Students who successfully cram are able to use a concept map or course outline to narrow into relevant themes. They quickly search through their lecture notes and effectively identify lesson summaries or review sections. Additionally, they spot key headings, zoom in on important bolded or highlighted words, and trigger visual recall from graphs or diagrams.

Instructors, particularly in first and second year courses, facilitate student-learning practices by incorporating explicit structure into their course design. During lecture and slide design there are many creative ways to promote learning practices, such as:

· Guided note taking, i.e. tell them what is important

· Incorporate concept mapping

· Analogies, and case studies

· Illustrations, graphs, tables

· Provide clear reviews and summary sections

· Clever use of formatting and animation

· Example questions and problems

· Use of props and movies

Instructors need to emphasize the benefit of learning practices and provide the resources needed by students to Study Smarter Not Harder!  A skilled student tends to incorporate learning practices throughout the course, and rarely requires last minute cramming. Nevertheless, that student at your office door can be given clear instructions on how to cram by being directed to their effectively and efficiently designed course and lecture materials.

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As a Teaching Assistant Developer (2008-2009), Sara Ashpole is responsible for observing teaching events for participants in the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program. Sara is a recent graduate of the CUT program (Summer 2008) and a doctoral candidate in the School of Planning. Sara’s research encompasses endangered species conservation planning and restoration ecology in degraded landscapes. Sara has taught as a teaching assistant at the University of Waterloo, a laboratory coordinator for the University of Guelph, and a workshop and seminar instructor for various governmental and environmental organizations.

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