Study Guides and Guiding Study

– Jeanne M. Slattery

JMS 0814

Jeanne Slattery

Last month I gave my students their first exam of the semester. One class did very well for a first exam (an average of a mid-C), while the other class, erm, did not.

I want my students to learn, even from their mistakes. As a result, I asked my students to reflect on their exam using several things that we’ve discussed here in earlier blogs – a video by Stephen Chew, Mark Mitchell’s (2016) article on identifying problems contributing to poor test performance, and a chapter of Carol Dweck’s (2006) work on mindset.

Surprisingly, most students attributed their problems to failing to read their text carefully enough or not studying sufficiently. I was surprised both because I expected them to attribute the problem to me (very few did), but also because they took responsibility for their poor grades, thus challenging my stereotypes about college students. Many talked about this as a first-test problem: they often have difficulties with a first exam until they know how their professor tests (and whether they need to study???).

When I run into problems, I also attempt to identify and learn from such mistakes. Two things that I’ve considered about this first exam: (a) I attempted to do too much in the first unit of the course and will pare back a bit next time, and (b) as some of my students complained, my study guide wasn’t as useful as they’d like and wasn’t available as early as they wished.

I’ve used similar study guides for a long time and have been successful in the past with them, but that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t handle them better. I hand them out a week before the exam, although some students thought I should hand them out sooner.

Should I?

I want my students to learn and to learn how to learn, to become curious about abnormal psychology, to adopt new ways of thinking about people and mental health problems. When they prepare for an exam, they often focus on memorizing definitions, the very bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy. I want them, at the very least, to also understand and apply the ideas we discuss. Those are skills that are difficult to build in a single week – but are unlikely to be built by reviewing definitions (although look at this way of using flashcards, written by Mark Mitchell).

I posted my concerns about study guides on Facebook and received many very thoughtful comments, more than I think I’ve received to anything else I’ve posted (thank you, all!).

Some comments that struck me:

On one hand, if you tell students everything you want them to learn, it might be the ONLY THINGS they learn. On the other side, they know what to look for and are less stressed which allows them to absorb more information. Maria Alfred ’10

From my aging perspective, I’m beginning to think that study guides serve only to reinforce that the purpose of the class is the transfer of information. John Ernissee (Geology, retired)

The syllabus is their study guide… Pam Stover (Music, University of Toledo)

They are simply used to being given the questions and answers in the form of a study guide in HS. We need to aid them in making the transition to thinking for themselves and not being supplied with the questions and answers. Rich Lane (English)

I have learned more by being challenged than by being spoon-fed…. Continue to do what you believe best prepares your students for graduate school or immediate transition to work in the field. In my experience, I was much more prepared for graduate school having earned my BS in Psychology at Clarion than most of my classmates at [xxx], and I still struggled with the sometimes rigorous demands of the program. I was expected to think for myself. Sandy Potter ’96

I am resistant to giving a study guide too early, as I also want students to begin to own their learning process. When they leave here, they will need to learn and identify what’s most important without me. As Ellen Foster (English) said, “That’s the point: ownership, self-starting, discipline, synthesis, etc.

Nic Rawson ’13, now in medical school, said,

The thing that they do [in my program] that I greatly appreciate is objectives. The beginning of every lecture (which are all powerpoints, so you’d have to get creative otherwise), they have a list of things we should know by the test. Sometimes these are “Know the pathogenesis, presentation, morphology, diagnostics, and treatment of all diseases presented in this lecture,” but most of the time they are a tad more specific. It helps guide my studying and focus on what is must know information.

Nic’s comments struck me. I know that there is a lot that I want my students to learn; Abnormal Psychology could easily be a two semester course. I do a fair amount already to guide my students’ studying. I post PowerPoints, give them a short study guide, and link to many good resources on studying effectively. In addition, though, I start each class with things that could easily be considered “study guides” for that class period. I open every class with a thought question, then follow that with a short series of questions that I’ve thought of as giving them a map of the class period (Figure 1).


Figure 1. The first two slides – or “study guides” – from my discussion of the relationship between stress and health in Abnormal Psychology.

Rather than thinking about these as only strategies to engage and orient students, perhaps I should also, like Nic Rawson suggested, be thinking of and talking about them as the best possible kind of study guides. Perhaps I should also help my students understand why I don’t only give them the test questions or a more developed study guide. As Sandy Potter observed, I want them to learn to think for themselves.

My students are focused on the grade and may not know that there are other things to consider. If all they earn is a good grade on an exam, I’ve failed them. I want my students to learn to think as a psychologist, to learn to learn, to become curious, to recognize and identify the important (and unimportant) things as they read. My study guide is only one part of that process.


Dweck, D. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill She can be contacted at

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6 Responses to Study Guides and Guiding Study

  1. Sandra Trejos says:

    Very important discussion! I have used a Reflection Questionnaire , now for several semesters, to allow students to think about possible factors that affected their grades. The answers are anonymous, and they are able to share amount of time studying, number of days they studied, if they read the book, if they get notes when they had to miss class, etc….They are very candid about it and it helps to think about improvements in strategy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Deborah Allen Clarion University BS Psychology 88: I was taught how to think, learn, and plan independent of study guides in my undergraduate Psychology classes. This better prepared me for working in the field both as a Counselor and then as a Psychiatric RN. Study guides are one tool but are not going to prepare the student for the world outside of college. There are no study guides there.


  3. Maria says:

    You are just one of the many reasons I am thankful I earned my B.S. at Clarion. The Psychology department there is full of professors who truly want their students to learn, and will do everything they can to make that happen. Thank you for being you, and keep being an awesome teacher!


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