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Help students improve their study skills

Don’t assume students come to college knowing how to study.
By Lea Hart

Often, faculty members assume that most college students will have similar studying habits: carefully reading the textbook, doing example exercises, and taking notes in class for exam review later.

But not all students come to college with a set of well-developed study skills. Some expect their professors to explain everything in class, while others may not have had a good role model in the past to help them develop the necessary skills.

With a little guidance, though, faculty members can encourage students to develop the study skills they'll need to succeed as freshmen and beyond. Here are some steps you can take to help your students become studying pros.

Get to know your students. Sometimes just helping students see the relevance of the subject matter to their lives can motivate them to put more effort into studying, said Sidney Askew, CPA, associate professor of accounting at Borough of Manhattan Community College. (This is especially true of introductory classes that have many non-accounting majors.)

On the first day of class, ask students to fill out an index card that indicates their major, where they're from, what motivates them, and why they're taking the class, he said.

"Once you know a little bit about the student, then you can think of ways to make the class meaningful," Askew said. For example, you might discuss why financial statements are important to a marketing major, or why a business manager would need to understand how to prepare a budget and measure its effectiveness.

"These concepts are not that far-fetched; we use them every day," Askew said. "As you make the class relevant and meaningful, it becomes more interesting, and that gets students into studying for it."

Consider a daily review or evaluation. Miles Romney, CPA, Ph.D., assistant professor of accounting at Florida State University, suggests a daily assessment in class to evaluate students' knowledge of the work they did at home. A quick quiz can show whether students grasp key vocabulary and concepts that were prominent in the chapter. It also emphasizes the fact that you expect them to come to class prepared.

Be accessible and help your students evaluate their skills. Make sure you're available to students in class and during office hours. Don't assume that students know how to study or how much they should be studying. Askew talks with students about whether they're allocating enough time to studying and whether they're having problems, and helps them identify extra resources, such as online tools that often come paired with textbooks they can use in areas of weakness.

Romney welcomes students during office hours to review any issues they had after a class or exam. He takes time to look at whether there's a systematic problem with their performance, and offers advice.

Sometimes Regina Brown, program coordinator and faculty member at Eastfield College in Dallas, circulates as her class works in small groups, and helps individual students see how to work through a problem. It's important not to single students out, she said, so she'll often go around to every student, but spend extra time with those who need help.

Encourage them to teach themselves and one another. Brown often puts her students in small groups for in-class work. Those groups will usually remain the same throughout the semester. When exam review time comes, she asks students to create their own exam reviews and present them to one another. Groups are assigned specific subject matter to cover, and may create a game or a quiz to present to their classmates, Brown said.

"I find it sticks a little better for them, rather than me doing a review," she said.

Teach them about habits. Often, Askew shows students a concept in class and then asks them to repeat the concept. He might ask students to come to the board or he might give a simple quiz at the end of class. His argument is that the more students repeat something, the more they'll remember it.

When he gets pushback about practice and repetition, he points out that the pitcher on a baseball team might pitch 100 times during practice, or that a dancer can get better at dancing only through practice.

"If you're doing that kind of repetition in other areas of your life, why is it that you're only repeating the homework once or twice?" he asks them. "It's the concept of success in other areas that we want to encourage them to apply to studying."

Lea Hart is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article, email lead editor Courtney Vien.

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