Wednesday, February 22, 2012

(Poor) Study Habit and Remedy

Many of our students do not realize their full potential because of a lack of discipline and poor study habits.  Practically none prepare for a class by reading the material that will be discussed.  Few, if any, read the assigned reading after class.  Most do not start working on an assignment or project until a few days before the due date.  Most wait until classes are finished before starting to cram for the examination.  As a result, they often have to work through the evening without sleeping to finish an assignment.  They cram for an examination just before the examination, and promptly forget everything right after the examination.  There is very little real understanding and retention of the material. 

Neuroscience research has discovered that the best way to remember something is to review the material a short period, e.g., one or two days, after it was first learned.  This way the short term memory is refreshed, instead of fading away.  After a number of refreshments, the short term memory becomes long term memory, and will not fade away easily.  But this is exactly what many of our students are not doing. 

Humans are beings of habit.  A habit, including the way we study, is very hard to change once it is formed.  Sometimes, live changing events force us to learn some new habits.  It is precisely at these moments when we are most open and flexible.   Entering university is such an event. 

Our university, like most other universities, has not really taken the opportunity to help our students acquire good study habits.  In fact, we are practically facilitating them to acquire bad study habits.  In the first weeks of the first semester, we typically make it easy for the incoming students.  We cancel some classes, do not give them a lot of assignments, give them a long time to finish an assignment, and do not give them tough projects until later in the semester - because we want to give the students plenty of time to adapt to the new environment, to attend orientations, to join clubs and societies, and to make new friends.  We make the whole first semester, or even the whole first year, relatively easy.   Then we make it tougher in the second year, and the third, and so on.   This may work for students who are self-disciplined and have already developed good study habits.  They are prepared to take advantage of the newly-available freedom to explore, to experiment, and are still able to catch up with the studies. 

Unfortunately, this does not work for those who are forming their own habits.  The message they are getting is that they can take it easy with their studies in the beginning of the term, and that they can take their time to catch up later in the term.  Starting in the second semester, their (bad) habits are already set, and it is very difficult for them to change, even if they want to.  Most of them do not. 

Hence, my modest proposal: Starting from the first semester in the first year, we have to make it clear to the students they are expected to read, review, and do their assignments.  We do need to give them time to adapt.  Hence the assignments and tests should be low-risk, not too difficult and carrying relatively light weight.  But the students have to get used to getting started with their studies early in the term, review often, and work consistently throughout the term. 

They will realize that good study habits work wonders for them. It will make life much easier for their teachers.


Cyiu Chau said...

Discipline. Hmm... That's exactly what I learnt from the Swiss guys here. I thought my work/study attitudes are not too bad, but comparing to them, I have to admit that I can do even better. Months ago the canteen here was offering a Fondue set for 10+ people during the lunch break and both my Spanish and Greek colleagues were interested. They then started asking around and hoping to gather 10+ people so we could book a set. None of my other colleagues said no, until, after they asked the Swiss workers. The Swiss said Fondue is so thick and heavy and they will feel sleepy after eating so much cheese, which will affect their work performance in the afternoon. I was totally speechless at that moment. But on a second thought, I guess discipline might be one of the major factors contributing to their success in many aspects.

Back to the study habit thing, based on what you posted here as well as my personal experiences, I would say it's good to have weekly (or bi-weekly) quizzes, because that will push more students to refresh what they have learnt in a timely manner.

Mmm... reminds me of what Thomas Jefferson said centuries ago, "The tree of liberty must from time to time be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants. Okay, a bit irrelevant, perhaps. =)

Well, sadly, my memories on many subjects that I've taken are fading away too, especially those EIE subjects. Guess I had too little chances to use them. Until, recently, the people in my lab asked me to do a Fourier Analysis, then I started reading some notes and tiny bits of the memories are coming back to me.

Besides, I also think we can provide some more non-graded practices, so perhaps the students can have more chances to try things out and enjoy 'doing'/'learning' something without having their focus misplaced on grades instead of the knowledge itself. But perhaps I am too optimistic on their willingness to learn. Perhaps most of them won't even care at all, if grades are not involved. I am not an educator and I really don't know. It feels like choosing to believe in 性本善 or 性本惡. Or maybe it's just 性本惰.

StephenC said...

Yeah, discipline is important. But you can also overdo it. You discipline yourself for a purpose, not for its own sake.

Regarding memory, you don't really want to memorize everything. There is no need. You want to understand the concepts and the logic underlying, and to remember that. The facts, you can always look it up.

At least, that's how I understand it.

Hope you can help us with that presentation at Percom.


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