Surviving and Thriving in a Changing Academic Environment: Tips for Academic Success – Part 1

Co-authored by Dr. Melissa Swisher, Lecturer, Purdue University

Despite our best intentions, we sometimes allow our responsibilities to overwhelm us. Attending class, keeping up with assignments, and maintaining acceptable grades present challenges – even for instructors. The recent push to move all courses to an alternative delivery format (i.e., online) for an indefinite period of time creates an even more frantic and uncertain situation for students (and instructors). Given these considerations, are there strategies that we can use that would make the academic semester more manageable? We explore some tips both students and instructors might try to ensure a successful end to the current semester and that may be used in the coming semesters as instruction continues to be delivered in alternative formats.

Nadworny (4 Sept, 2019) listed seven pieces of advice for students as to how to do well in college. The first tip is to take better notes. Many students feel compelled to write down every word their instructor says or writes. It can be difficult for students to record everything during synchronous courses (courses that meet in real time), whether they are held in-person or virtually, and it’s often unnecessary. Some faculty record audio and visual files for repeated access or for courses held in an asynchronous fashion (students can access the course content at their leisure or according to an instructor-determined time frame but do not require the students and instructors to come together at the same time). Nevertheless, regardless of the modality of instruction or the timing of the instruction, students do not need to write everything down word-for-word. Instead, students should make note of new terms, keywords, and phrases that help them to capture the gist of concepts in lessons. Jotting down just enough information can help students to ask more informed questions later or to look up related information to develop a more complete understanding of the concepts even after the lecture has occurred.

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How Instructors Can Help:

Course instructors can incorporate principles from Direct Instruction (see Stockard, Wood, Coughlin, & Rasplica Khoury, 2018 for a review and Engelmann & Carnine, 1982) in the classroom to teach students how to take notes (Davey & Bensky, 1989). This might entail modeling what students should write down using a sample passage from the lecture or a textbook and asking students to practice with guided notes or an outline. Next, the instructor can give students feedback regarding the accuracy or completeness of their notes and give instructions for how students can improve their note taking in the future. After some practice with feedback, students will learn to take better notes independently. 

Instructors can also introduce response opportunities via choral responding (when students all respond simultaneously to a question) or supply students with guided notes (when students write missing information in their notes from the instructor’s completed notes). Response cards (pre-printed or blank cards upon which students write their answers and hold them up for the instructor to see) may also be useful in helping students to attend to critical concepts and information (see Twyman & Heward, 2018 for several low tech strategies instructors can use to engage their students). (Hint: You can use these techniques in online synchronous instruction, too. Features such as the yes/no or hand raising response on some online platforms can be used for simple questions, and students can create response cards or respond vocally for more complex questions.) With these strategies, instructors can assess student learning as it happens and clarify confusing points, and students can correct or add to their notes based on teacher feedback – learning better ways to take notes in the process.

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The second tip is to use a planner.   Planners can help students to stay on top  of due dates. Many students may not look at the syllabus after the first day of class. Rather than bounce back and forth between several syllabi and personal schedules (especially as schedules and deadlines are changing almost daily in the current conditions), students could import all those deadlines and activities into one electronic or paper schedule. It is easy for students to forget about course meetings and neglect to turn in assignments for weeks at a time, especially in online courses and even more so with asynchronous courses. A poor grade for the course overall is far delayed from engaging in activities other than completing individual assignments, and students never contact the more immediate conditioned punisher of poor grades on individual assignments if they never log into their learning management systems. Perhaps for some students, failing grades do not serve as conditioned punishers (and passing grades do not serve as effective conditioned reinforcers). As we’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, delayed punishers do not work as well as immediate punishers in changing behavior (see Abramowitz & O’Leary, 1990; Lerman & Vorndran, 2002Trenholme & Baron, 1975 for examples). Similarly, one of the practical disadvantages of self-paced learning modules is that some students procrastinate and don’t leave enough time to complete all their assignments (see Michael, 1991 for an introduction). Many people procrastinate – but eventually complete – individual assignments like the students of psychology who participated in the Jarmolowicz, Hayashi, and St. Peter Pipkin (2010) study, who took their quizzes the day before or the day of the deadline. 

How Instructors Can Help:

To help reduce student procrastination, course instructors can make quizzes available contingent upon completing practice questions (Perrin, Miller, Haberlin, Ivy, Meindl, & Neef, 2011). Students are also more likely to complete homework and to earn higher grades on quizzes when they receive points for completing homework instead of only receiving corrective feedback on quizzes (Ryan & Hemmes, 2005). More frequent quizzes over smaller chunks of material can also promote student success (e.g., Dalfen, Fienup, & Sturmey, 2018; Imam, 2014; Lȇ, 2012; Marcell, 2008; Orr & Foster, 2013). Setting up clear contingencies for completing work, when the work needs to be completed by, and what the expectations for students are is an easy strategy instructors can use to help students organize their schedules and make clear what should be set up in their planners.Time management is a skill that needs to be taught and learned just like new material specific to a course. Course instructors can also incorporate task analyses and activity schedules in their courses to help students (and the instructors themselves) to stay on track. Some students might be ready to develop their own self-management programs, set their own goals; and record, graph, and reinforce their own behavior (see Dean, Malott, & Fulton, 1983; Olympia, Sheridan, Jenson, & Andrews, 1994 for additional details). If a student isn’t accustomed to building time to study into their schedule, they can try (or be taught) to gradually increase study time from 5 to 10 to 15 minutes, for example, to longer periods of time (e.g., 1 hour each day) using a changing criterion design (see Hartman & Hall, 1976; Klein, Houlihan, Vincent, & Panahon, 2017; Wolfe, Heron, & Goddard, 2000 for examples) over a two week period. (Hint: The break between spring and summer semesters or spring and fall semesters could be a great time to try this out.)

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Creating a task analysis (see Haring & Kennedy, 1988; Resnik, Wang, & Kaplan, 1973) involves breaking a larger task into smaller steps. For instance, a student may need to complete a project focused on recent research related to educational practices. In order to accurately complete the project, a student will need to know what the individual project components are – such as selecting a topic; choosing several relevant keywords to use in their search of the peer-reviewed literature; downloading, reading, understanding, and summarizing an article; and writing a paper that meets the criteria outlined in a grading rubric. Students can estimate how long each of these tasks will take and then plan when to start the project as well as how long they need to work on the project each day in order to finish by the deadline. Students might create a task analysis the day the project is initially assigned to help prevent procrastination. 

Activity schedules, conversely, may be more helpful for day-to-day obligations (see Bryan & Gast, 2000; Krantz, MacDuff, & McClannahan, 1993; Massey & Wheeler, 2000; Rehfeldt, 2002 for examples) like logging into the learning management system for a class to check messages or announcements with pictures showing each step in order, rather than for tasks that need to be completed over longer periods of time. Adults tend to use planners and post-it notes instead of picture activity schedules, but the same principles apply. Activity schedules, in whatever modality, are especially useful for learning new chains of behavior.

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The third tip is for students to test themselves or engage in retrieval practice while studying. Karpicke (2012), Karpicke and Blunt (2011), Karpicke and Roediger (2007), and Moreira, Pinto, Starling, and Jaegar (2019) offer more information on retrieval practice from a cognitive perspective. The main finding for retrieval practice (or the testing effect) is that students perform better on exams if they complete practice exams before the exam; however, many students study by simply rereading their notes, drawing concept maps, or writing summaries of the topics they covered in class. Rereading, creating concept maps, and writing summaries are not particularly effective study strategies (see Roediger, 2013). One way students can test themselves is to study vocabulary terms and definitions, important people and their contributions, equations, and even concepts or important points using flashcards. One strategy for using flashcards is to see the information that is presented on one side of the card and then say or type the information on the other side of the card. The test comes in when students can say or type the information on the other side of the card without looking. If students practice these flashcards daily and focus on building both accuracy and fluency (Binder, 1996; Fabrizio & Moors, 2003; Johnston & Street, 2012), this study strategy might be considered what behavior analysts call SAFMEDS (or Say All Fast Minute Each Day Shuffled, see Cihon, Sturtz, & Eshleman, 2012; Quigley, Peterson, Frieder, & Peck, 2018; Stockwell & Eshleman, 2010; and Urbina, Baltazar, & Cihon, 2019 for some examples of how SAFMEDS have been used as a study tool and incorporated in classes). Students can make paper cards or use an app to practice their flashcards (see Anki, Brainscape, Flashcards+, Quizlet, StudyBlue, Tinycards), but a countdown timer probably won’t be included; instead, students will need to arrange their own timed practice sessions. Students may often find the utility in graphing progress over timed practice (study) sessions to see how many cards in a minute can be accurately identified and if they are learning more terms, concepts, etc. over time.

How Instructors Can Help:

Instructors can create physical or electronic SAFMEDS cards for students (see Eshleman, 2000 and Behaviorbabe for tutorials) or give students those resources to create their own SAFMEDS cards. Cihon, Sturtz, and Eshleman (2012) showed that student-created SAFMEDS can be as effective for improving quiz scores as instructor-created SAFMEDS. Teachers can create courses with their flashcards on Quizlet, for example, and give students the link to the course. Anecdotally, students are more likely to use flashcards when the instructor creates them and makes those flashcards readily available. Instructors can also create time in class for students to practice with their SAFMEDS cards, graph their progress, and earn points for their attempts.

These three tips describe how students can help themselves and how course instructors can create additional learning opportunities and support their students in making the semester a success. The shift to online courses mid-semester has no doubt had other unintended consequences, but learning how to take notes, using a planner, and testing yourself can go a long way to put yourself and your grades into an advantageous position to finish out the semester.

Stay tuned for our next blog when we will discuss four more tips for students and instructors to try to survive and thrive in a changing academic environment.