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Will This Be on the Test Too?

October 27, 2009

Have you ever studied for a test only to find that although you studied hard, you couldn’t answer many of the questions? I certainly have. It’s sometimes seemed to me that the teacher and I read entirely different textbooks or novels or that what s/he said during a lecture didn’t make it into my brain. The things that interested me and that I focused on weren’t being tested, making it appear that I didn’t care about the class. (I always loved it when teachers included a final question: “What didn’t I ask about that you learned?” I’ve filled pages answering that kind of question even when I could answer all of the questions on the test.)

My second quarter back in school, I reluctantly joined a study group. Honestly, I just thought I wouldn’t have time for it. I was in a class made up mostly of students who lived on campus, while I was a commuter with a family and a job. Finding a mutually agreeable time was challenging, but I found it was worth it as the weeks went on. Listening to other people talk about course concepts and information filled gaps in my learning that I didn’t even know existed. And as much as I enjoyed my best friend in school who was also an older student and a mother, I learned lots from listening to my classmates who were not like me, another benefit of seeking out a more diverse group of study buddies.

Here’s an activity I’ve used with classes when I’m recommending that students consider the benefits of forming a study group. Give it a try sometime with your friends:

You have one minute to make a list of all the things you see in this room. When time’s up, compare your list with a neighbor or two or three. What do you notice?

What students notice in class is that their neighbors have often “seen” different things in the very same room. Our brains work differently whether we’re listening to a lecture or viewing a film or reading a textbook, and this is a good reason to consider studying with others. You gain additional perspectives and have your attention drawn to things you might not have considered otherwise. Explaining your thinking helps reinforce it or helps identify areas where your reasoning is faulty.

Another benefit of the listing game? Noticing what you notice can provide you with additional insights into your learning preferences and can help you study more effectively since you’ll also become more aware of the things you don’t notice.

It took me several quarters in school before I gained enough confidence to ask a teacher what would be on the test. While asking wouldn’t have solved all my studying problems, it could have helped me target things the teacher considered important. Note: It can be annoying to the teacher if a student is constantly interrupting to ask if something will be on the test since it can appear that this is the only reason s/he has for paying attention. This is another benefit to being part of a study group. You can share the burden of inquiring with your group, remembering to ask at appropriate times, not in the middle of a lecture, for example.

Another strategy is to approach the teacher during office hours, after class, or via email, and say something like this, “My study group was wondering if you could go over your expectations for the _____________ (fill in the blank: term project, research paper, final exam, etc.) at our next class session. We want to be sure to maximize our study time together.” This sets you up as someone who cares about the course and reminds your teacher that other students may be wondering about course requirements too.

Be bold. Even if you’re part of a group, you’re probably not alone if you are confused or unsure about course requirements. Many times I’ve asked what I thought were blazingly obvious questions only to be told later by another student, “I’m glad you asked about that. I was wondering too.” And even if you are the only person who is confused, you deserve clarification. You’ll probably do much better on that test.

The listing game is fun to play at the first meeting of a study group. You can do it just about anywhere and it’s a good icebreaker. Give it a try.

So many things fail to interest us, simply because they don’t find in us enough surfaces on which to live, and what we have to do is increase the number of planes in our mind, so that a much larger number of themes can find a plane in it at the same time.
• Jose Ortega y Gasset

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