Are undergraduate students studying smart? Insights into study strategies and habits across a programme of study
The approach that students take in their studies at university is critical not only for their academic success but is equally important in life-long learning for their career and professional development. Heutagogy is the study of self-determined learning and it is important that we appraise how students in higher education are developing their metacognitive awareness in how they learn and study effectively. Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary research area that involves the scientific study of the human mind. It helps provide new knowledge in relation to areas such as memory, problem solving, knowledge transfer and understanding of complex topics. Cognitive science has demonstrated that re-testing oneself on material when learning, enhances and promotes greater retention of knowledge compared to re-reading the material. Learning that is distributed or spaced out over multiple study sessions also allows for greater retention of knowledge in the longer-term compared to ‘cramming’ of information. To evaluate the use of effective study approaches and habits across three different levels of study in an undergraduate pharmacy programme, a survey study was employed. A paper-based survey was completed by first-, second- and third-year undergraduate pharmacy students (n=192) during class sessions. Although there was some evidence of metacognitive awareness such as using testing (retrieval practice) with practice problems; across all years, suboptimal study approaches such as rereading, copying notes and cramming were endorsed. A schedule of deadlines shaped the organisation of study and time management for most students. Self-testing was predominantly used to test learning rather than an approach used during learning. There was evidence of a difference between the cohorts in relation to decisions for prioritizing studying, returning to review course material and re-reading. The evidence from this study demonstrates that learners would require training on metacognitive awareness and effective study strategies to enable their self-determined learning capabilities to evolve. The linear progression through a programme of study alone will not achieve this. There is a need to embed and emphasize effective strategies for learning into curricula and for faculty to utilise metacognitive awareness in their teaching.
- Self-determined learning places an expectation that learners self-regulate and take responsibility for their learning. Student’s independent study within a programme helps to consolidate learning.
- Study habits and preferences vary among individuals however there is clear evidence from cognitive science that not all study approaches are effective.
- Undergraduate students are using suboptimal study methods such as rereading notes, recopying notes and cramming information the night before a test. Self-testing was predominantly used to test learning rather than an approach used during learning.
- Students report that they are not using approaches taught to them by teachers. It has been shown that learners incorrectly predict suboptimal methods as superior to evidence-based approaches. We suggest that evidence-based study approaches are explicitly emphasised and embedded within courses.
- We recommend to senior managers with learning and teaching remits (Directors of Learning and Teaching, Pro Vice-Chancellors for Education and Student Experience) that faculty staff are informed about evidence-based learning approaches from cognitive science and increase metacognitive awareness in their teaching.
Fergus, S. (2022). Are undergraduate students studying smart? Insights into study strategies and habits across a programme of study. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 19(2), 110-127. https://doi.org/10.53761/22.214.171.124