So many learning resources … so little time

Contributed by Matt Taylor

Suppose you are searching for that great new activity, assignment, or video for your class. Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the never-ending list of resources that you can find? Your students might feel the same way about the abundance of learning resources available to them. The good news is that we can help students take control in the chaos.

Many teachers and educational developers want students to have a variety of resources to help them master concepts. Since student learning styles or preferences vary, it is useful to provide different tools for a diverse body of learners.

But more is not necessarily better if students don’t know how to use the resources available to them. To overcome this gap in understanding, teachers could tell their students how each learning resource might be useful. Or better yet, teachers could encourage students to develop their own strategies. It turns out that the latter—asking students to make deliberate study plans—has a small but significant impact on class performance, according to Patricia Chen and her coauthors in a 2017 Psychological Science article. The research team set up an experimental group of students who developed specific strategies to use learning resources and compared the performance and psychology of those students to others who made no deliberate study plans.

Students who made deliberate study plans improved their course grade by about 4%.

Chen and the other researchers conducted their experiment in two introductory statistics classes. All students in these classes received weekly reminders of what resources were available to them. Also, in return for extra credit points, students were given the option to take surveys before and after two midterm exams. Participation in all four surveys was around 60%. Upon starting the first survey, students were randomly assigned to the control group or the experimental group (the class instructor was blind to this assignment). Post hoc analysis of these groups revealed that their members were not significantly different in terms of past performance, motivation, or confidence.

Pre-survey: Students in both the experimental and control group were asked questions targeting four areas: what grade they wanted to receive on the exam, how motivated they were to receive that grade, how important it was to receive that grade, and how confident they were in success.

Then, only the students in the experimental group went on to answer questions about their study plans. The first question asked them to select which resources from a list would be likely to help them study for the exam. For example, in an introductory biology course using a McGraw-Hill book, the list might look like this:

  • Textbook readings
  • Connect questions
  • LearnSmart questions
  • Smartbook learning resources
  • Tutorial animations
  • Office hours
  • Lecture notes
  • Previous exams
  • Lab materials

After making their selections, students described in essay format how each chosen learning resource would help them. Then, they were asked to describe in detail when, where, and how they would use each resource to study in the week before the exam (e.g., “on Monday morning I will go to the library to rewrite my lecture notes”).

Post-survey: All students received the same post-survey. It asked questions about what resources students had used and how useful they thought each resource was to their learning. They were also asked about how much control they thought they had over their own grades, how much they plan for an exam, and how well they follow through with their plans.

Results: Students in the experimental group who participated in at least one pre-survey scored approximately 4% higher than their classmates who did not make deliberate study plans. Students who made study plans before both tests got an even higher boost in overall course performance. (Importantly, the treatment effect remains statistically significant even when the researchers removed the extra credit points that students received for participating in the surveys.)

Finally, the researchers also found that students who participated in strategic study planning on a previous exam felt more confident, less anxious, and more in control of their grades on an upcoming exam.

The research article has many other details that I did not explain here, and I encourage you to read it for yourself. But the major takeaway is this:

If you encourage strategic planning of learning resource use, then your students will be more confident and successful.

Do you encourage students to plan and self-reflect on their learning? How does it work in your classroom?


Patricia Chen, Omar Chavez, Desmond C. Ong, and Brenda Gunderson. 2017. Strategic Resource Use for Learning: A Self-Administered Intervention That Guides Self-Reflection on Effective Resource Use Enhances Academic Performance. Psychological Science, Vol 28, Issue 6, pp. 774 – 785.

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