Do your students know how to study? (RB)

Every semester after teachers have given their first test, a wave of dismay comes over them. They lament to each other about how poorly many of their students did on material they covered explicitly in class sessions and assignments. Their pain can be particularly acute in first-year and departmental gateway courses, and they wonder if their students have a clue about how to study.

The sad fact is many of the students don’t! They got A’s in high school just by looking over their class notes and graded homework before the test and repeating it all on the test. As we know and they learn the hard way, rote memorization falls woefully short in college courses—at least in the good ones, which hopefully include yours.

So if students don’t know how to study, how can you help them without regressing to pure memorization tests? Here are a few strategies you might consider.

    1. Use study guides to make your expectations clear. It’s hard for students to prepare effectively for tests when they aren’t sure what kinds of thinking they’ll be expected to do. Clear learning objectives can help a lot. If you give objectives to students in the form of a study guide a week or so before an exam (To do well on this test, you should be able to define…, explain…, calculate…, derive…, critique…, formulate…, design…), students can make sure they’re studying the right things.
      You may worry that giving students study guides is spoon-feeding them. It isn’t—not if it’s done right. Study guides just clarify instructors’ expectations, including expectations of high-level thinking and problem-solving, and make it clear that rote memorization won’t be enough. You can make your expectations as high as you want (within reason); when you make them clear to the students, you’ll maximize the chances that the students capable of meeting them will do it.  For ideas about to write learning objectives and use them as study guides, click here.
    2. Tell students explicitly about study strategies supported by cognitive science. Tell them about retrieval practice (self-tests) for material they may need to recall, spacing out their study sessions instead of cramming at the last minute, and setting up problem solutions from memory to be sure they really understand how to solve the kinds of problems you may ask on the test. Warn them against just re-reading lecture notes and old problem solutions, which can lead to “illusions of competence” and disappointing exam grades. For more details, click here.
    3. Give spaced retrieval practice in class. All of the strategies listed in the previous suggestion can and should be modeled in class. Give students periodic short quizzes so they can test their understanding of the material before a higher-stakes mid-term exam. Use individual and small-group active learning exercises in class so they can practice the skills you’re teaching and get immediate feedback on their attempts. A step-by-step process for using partially worked-out problem solutions effectively to promote learning can be found here. For a brief tutorial on active learning exercises, click here, and to see narrated videos that illustrate active learning in STEM classes, click here  (12 minutes) and here (35 minutes).
    4. Help students think about their study practices (metacognition) by using exam wrappers after each test. When you hand back the tests, have students reflect on the results and ask themselves: (1) How did I prepare for this test? (2) Am I happy with my performance? (3) What might I do to prepare more effectively for the next test? For more details on exam wrappers, click here.
    5. Promote a growth mindset. When students have a growth mindset, they believe that they can improve their performance with hard work. This attitude contrasts with a fixed mindset, a belief that performance is based on a talent you either have or you don’t, as in “I’m just bad at math.” Research has shown that compared to a fixed mindset, a growth mindset generally leads to a better academic performance. You can have a profound influence on your students by regularly suggesting that even if the material you’re teaching seems difficult, they can master it by working hard and using the strategies you’ve taught them. You might also note that some of the same material was also hard for you when you first encountered it. For more information on helping students develop a growth mindset and on the supporting research, take a look here.

    To find out more about these strategies and many more you can use to help your students’ performance, check out Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide (Ch. 2 on objectives, Ch. 6 on active learning, and Chapters 9 and 10 on helping students develop high-level thinking and problem-solving skills). Another good resource is Teach Students How to Learn (McGuire, S.A., 2015).

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Ten Habits of Highly Ineffective STEM Instructors (RF)

Does your class frequently look like the one on the left? If it does, some of the ideas in this post may be worth thinking about.

There are no recipes for good teaching. For almost every teaching tip you can find in our book and other references on effective pedagogy, you can find someone well known as a good teacher who doesn’t do things in the recommended way. The same thing is true of bad teaching: we can strongly caution our readers not to do something and you can find excellent teachers who do it with no evil consequences. There are, however, certain teaching practices that may not guarantee poor learning or low student evaluations but definitely push classes in that direction. Here are ten of them.

  1. On Day 1 of a course, assume the students remember and understand everything in the prerequisite courses and jump directly into material brand new to them. Whenever you start a new topic, again plunge right in, without bothering to mention what it has to do with anything the students are likely to care about, be interested in, or know anything about from previous coursework.
  2. Devote most of your course to theoretical principles and mathematical abstractions. If students ask why they need to know all that, tell them that they need to master the “fundamentals” before they get to the practical applications later in the curriculum or after they graduate.
  3. Put your lecture notes on PowerPoint slides and spend all of each class session reading the slides to the students, word for word. No activities—assume the students will learn how to perform complex analyses or solve tough problems just by watching you do it.
  4. Occasionally ask questions during class and either call on individual students immediately or give the answers yourself if no one answers in two seconds or less. Ridicule students who give “dumb” answers.
  5. Assign homework infrequently or not at all. If you assign it, make sure it takes a lot more than two hours out of class for each class hour, and let many weeks elapse before you grade and return it.
  6. Give straightforward problems on assignments and complex or tricky problems on tests. If students complain, tell them (a) they have to learn how to think for themselves, or (b) you’re curving grades so it doesn’t matter.
  7. Make up your tests the night before you give them and don’t bother working out the solutions. If you or the students discover a glitch during a test, tell the class (a) to correct the problem statement and start over, or (b) you’re curving grades so it doesn’t matter.
  8. Give tests that only the top students in the class have time to finish. If students complain, tell them (a) if they really knew the material they wouldn’t have had any trouble finishing, or (b) you’re curving grades so it doesn’t matter.
  9. When your class average on a test is 43 (out of 100), take it as proof that the students are incompetent or lazy or both. Share that opinion with them. Never consider the possibilities that either you did a poor job of covering the test content in class or it was a poorly written test.
  10. If you get dismal course evaluations, assure yourself that it’s because (1) you set higher standards than your colleagues, or (2) you’re not an “entertainer,” or (3) students don’t know enough to evaluate teaching. Add that even though they don’t like you now, in a few years they’ll recognize how good you really were. (Note: Research says that’s possible but highly unlikely.)  Never consider the possibility that the evaluations may be justified.
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Eight Ways to Defuse Student Resistance (RF, RB)

When learner-centered teaching (LCT) methods, such as active, cooperative, and problem-based learning are well done, strong student resistance is uncommon and usually short-lived when it occurs. Here are some strategies that minimize or eliminate it [DeMonbrun et al., 2017; Felder & Brent , 1996; Nguyen et al., 2017; Seidel & Tanner, 2013; Tolman & Kremling, 2016; Weimer, 2013].

  1. Ease into LCT.

If you’re new to active learning, start with one or two brief (10 s – 3 min) active learning exercises in each class session, and continue doing it until both the students and you become accustomed to the approach. Gradually increase the frequency of activities until you get to a level you’re happy with. After a semester or two of that, you may choose to move into other LCT methods such as inquiry-based and cooperative learning. When you feel comfortable with those approaches, if you want to do full-scale problem-based learning (nothing says you have to), go for it. If you jump directly into PBL without getting experience with gentler methods, the student resistance could overwhelm you and you might decide never to try LCT again, which would be a loss for both you and them.

  1. Before you start to use an LCT method, learn about it.

All LCT methods have pitfalls—common mistakes instructors make that limit the effectiveness of the methods and aggravate student resistance to them. The education literature offers lots of guidance on what those mistakes are and how to avoid them. Weimer [2013] provides an excellent general discussion, active learning is addressed by Felder & Brent [2016, pp. 122–127, 243–244], cooperative learning by Felder & Brent [2016, Ch. 11] and Oakley et al. [2007], and inductive teaching and learning by Prince & Felder [2006, 2007]. Find out about the mistakes before you make them rather than learning about them by trial-and-error. 

  1. Form good relations with the students and motivate them to learn, starting Day 1.

Felder & Brent [2016, pp. 52–62] suggest a number of techniques for the first week of a course that serve those purposes. They include learning as many of your students’ names as possible, setting up mechanisms for easy and effective communication with them, and helping them understand the connections between your course and their interests and career goals. If students believe that you care about them and their learning and they feel motivated to learn in your course, they’ll be less likely to rebel against a teaching practice they don’t like at first [Weimer, 2013].

  1. Explain what you’re doing, why, and what’s in it for the students.

When you start doing something in a class that makes students more responsible for their own learning than they are used to, they are likely to push back, thinking that you are either avoiding your teaching obligations or running an experiment with them as the guinea pigs. Explaining what you’ll be doing and how it’s in their interests before you start doing it can lower their resistance long enough for them to see that you’re telling them the truth. Part of the explanation should be an offer to show them research demonstrating that students taught the way you’ll be teaching get higher grades. See Felder (n.d.) for an illustrative Day 1 sermonette that introduces active learning to a class and cites Freeman et al. (2014) for the research, and Felder & Brent (2016, pp. 243–244) for sermonettes aimed at students working on assigned project teams.

  1. Model and give practice in unfamiliar methods.

If you assign students to do high-level analytical or critical or creative thinking or technical writing or oral reporting, or to tackle a problem before they’ve been taught how (which is what happens in inductive teaching and learning), there’s a good chance that many of them won’t understand what you’re looking for. Their frustration can be intense when that happens, and resistance is a likely outcome.

To avoid it, first show some concrete examples of the kind of thinking you’re looking for, and then have the students critique other examples and try to do similar things in active learning exercises. Then, and only then, give them assignments and tests on the targeted skills. For some concrete examples of tasks that call for a variety of high-level skills, see Felder & Brent [2016, Ch. 9–10].

  1. Interact with students while they are engaged in LCT activities.

If your students are working on activities in class that take more than a few seconds, circulate among them and be ready to provide help and encouragement. If several students raise a question or point of confusion, share your response with all of them, either in class, by email, or by posting it on the course website or a discussion forum. Encourage students to contact you in live or virtual office hours.

  1. After several weeks, survey students regarding their LCT experience.

After enough time has elapsed for the students to get used to an LCT method (say, 2–4 weeks), given them an anonymous survey that asks whether they believe the method is helping them learn, hindering their learning, or having little effect on their learning, and solicit their comments about what they do and don’t like about the method.

A probable outcome is that many students will believe that the LCT method is helping them learn, many others will be neutral, and a handful will think they are learning less than they would if you taught traditionally. If that is indeed what happens, report the results in the next class session. As a rule, students who are hostile to LCT after a few weeks of it believe that they are the vanguard of a mass movement. When they discover that most of their classmates are either enthusiastic about it or could take it or leave it, their overt resistance usually fades away. On the other hand, if the survey shows that many students are still hostile to LCT, look back at the literature, see if you were violating any recommendations for how to do it, and look for patterns in the students’ comments about what in particular bothers them about it. Decide what, if anything, you’ll change in the future, and announce it in the next class session.

  1. Learn from your first try, and try again.

The first time you teach a course traditionally, you can be sure that you won’t get it right. You’ll learn from that experience, make changes, and the course will be much better the second time. By the third time, it will start to look like what you initially had in mind.

It’s no different with learner-centered teaching. Give it your best shot the first time, figure out how you could have done it better, and do it that way the second time. It may take longer than three iterations to get it where you want it, especially with a challenging method such as problem-based learning, but if you have patience and an open mind you’ll eventually start to see the learning benefits that the LCT literature promises.


DeMonbrun, M., Finelli, C.J., Prince, M., Borrego, M.,  Shekhar, P., Henderson, C., and Waters, C. (2017). Creating an instrument to measure student response to instructional practices. Journal of Engineering Education, 106 (2), 273–298.

Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (1996). “Navigating the bumpy road to student–centered instruction.” College Teaching, 44 (2), 43–47.

Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Felder, R.M. (n.d.). Sell active learning to your students before doing it [Blog post].

Nguyen, K., Husman, J., Borrego, M., Shekhar, P., Prince, M., DeMonbrun, M., Finelli, C. Henderson, C., and Waters, C. (2017). Students’ expectations, types of instruction, and instructor strategies predicting student response to active learning. International Journal of Engineering Education, 33 (1A), 2–18.

Oakley, B.A., Hanna, D.M., Kuzmyn, Z., and Felder, R.M. (2007). “Best practices involving teamwork in the classroom: Results from a survey of 6435 engineering student respondents. IEEE Transactions in Education, 50(3), 266–272 (2007).

Prince, M.J., and Felder, R.M. (2006). Inductive teaching and learning methods: Definitions, comparisons, and research bases. J. Engr. Education, 95(2), 123–138 (2006).

Prince, M.J., and Felder, R.M. (2007). The many faces of inductive teaching and learning. J. Coll. Sci. Teaching, 36(5), 14–20.

Seidel, S.B., and Tanner, K.D. (2013). “What if students revolt?”—Considering Student Resistance: Origins, Options, and Opportunities for Investigation. CBE Life Sci Educ, 12(4), 586–595.

Tolman, A.O., and Kremling, A. (2016). Why students resist learning: A practical model for understanding and helping students. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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How can I do all this new stuff and still cover my syllabus? (RB & RF)

This question is the first one we get in just about in every workshop we give. Everyone worries that active learning exercises and other learner-centered methods will take too much time, and important course material won’t be covered. It’s a completely understandable fear, but there are some techniques you can use to do all the learner-centered teaching you want without sacrificing coverage of course content, and maybe even covering more.

Reduce coverage of nice-to-know material. Write learning objectives and use them to distinguish need-to-know from nice-to-know course material. Need-to-know material directly addresses your learning objectives and may be on your assignments and tests, and nice-to-know material doesn’t and won’t be. Make sure you cover all of your need-to-know material, and put nice-to-know material in any remaining time you have.

Felder, R.M. (2014). Why are you teaching that? Chem. Engr. Education, 48(3), 131-132. 

Felder, R. M, & Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide (Chapter 2). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Reduce in-class coverage of material to be memorized. If all you want students to do with information is memorize and repeat it on exams, put it on handouts or study guides to be read outside class, and quiz the students on it in class or online.

Felder, R. M, & Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide (p. 34). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Keep in-class activities short. Most activities should take between 10 seconds and three minutes. As few as two or three activities in a 50-minute class can make a huge difference in your students’ learning without seriously damaging your content coverage. If you want students to do something that will take more than three minutes, break it into chunks and process the chunks separately.

Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. Active learning tutorial

Felder, R. M, & Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide (Chapter 6). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Flip some course content. Present some course content in interactive online tutorials and self-tests before class, and use the class period for active learning that builds on the online material.

Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (2015). To flip or not to flip. Chem. Engr. Education, 49(3), 191-192

Felder, R. M, & Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide (pp. 142-146). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Use handouts with gaps. Put your lecture notes on handouts interspersed with questions, incompletely labeled diagrams, and skipped steps in problem solutions. Have students read straightforward material themselves in class and ask questions rather than lecturing on everything. Use active learning to fill gaps.

Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (2015). Handouts with Gaps. Chem. Engr. Education, 49(4), 239-240. 

Felder, R. M, & Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide (pp. 81-84). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Selling active learning to your students (RF)

When Instructors start using active learning in a class of students who aren’t used to it, the students generally don’t all welcome it, and some may be resistant or downright hostile to it. A key to defusing the resistance is to give them some advance preparation.

At the beginning of a class in which you’ll be using active learning, explain to the students what you’ll be doing, why you’re doing it, and what’s in it for them.

Before I retired from full-time teaching, my first-day sermonette about active learning went something like this:

Here’s how this class is going to work. Every so often I’ll stop my lecture and give you something to do—sometimes individually, more often in small groups—related to what I’ve been talking about. You’ll have a short time—as little as 10 seconds, as much as three minutes—to answer a question, begin a problem solution, carry out the next step in a derivation, or whatever it may be. I’ll stop you and call on one or more of you to share what you came up with, and then resume my lecture when I’ve gotten what I’m looking for or something even better.

So why am I doing this? I’m doing it for your benefit. The things I’ll ask you to do in these short activities will be the same things I’ll ask you to do on your assignments and exams…the hard parts. I have a stack of research proving that students taught this way have an easier time on homework and get better grades on exams than students taught with traditional nonstop lecturing. If any of you would like to see that research, let me know—I’d be happy to share it with you. Any questions?

You’ll probably never have a student who asks to examine the research, but offering to show it generally convinces all of them that you’re serious, and they’ll sit still for active learning long enough to see that you’re telling the truth about its benefits. If anyone ever does ask to examine it, refer them to:

Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., and Wenderoth, M.P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410–8415.

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