Crowdsourcing the Study Guide

I’ve always had somewhat of an ambivalent relationship with study guides. Every semester, my students have clamored for a study guide for each examination, and each semester I go ahead and provide them with one. I think every instructor wishes they could respond to the “what do I need to study for this exam” question with “everything!,” but I also understand students’ need for some sort of framework within which they can organize and process the information they’re studying. The problem with study guides, though, is that they are often interpreted as the exclusive provider of what’s on the test, as opposed to a scaffolding for organizing and studying information. No matter how many times I tell students that the guide I’m giving them is for review purposes, that it contains potential topics for exam questions and is not the exam itself, there’s still a regular tendency to interpret the review material as an exclusive compendium of everything that they need to study.

I get why that instinct is so prevalent; the test-to-the-content strategy has been the dominant part of my students’ experiences with history courses; there’s a sense that remembering names and dates and specific things like that are the sine qua non of successful exam-taking. And while I think certainly think content knowledge is essential, that’s not what I’m after. My exams are intended to assess what students do with that content: I look for analysis, critical thinking, argument and evidence–all the higher-order stuff that History courses are so good at developing. The question that bedeviled me for years, then, was how to strike the balance between providing students the structure and security of a study guide without having them use it as an intellectual straightjacket.

The most successful way out of this dilemma, for me, has been to crowdsource my review material. Instead of distributing a sheet with a list of things “you need to study,” with all of the connotations that carries, I have students collaborate to produce a set of materials with which they can review material from the particular portion of the course their exam will cover. When I first started this activity (almost a decade ago), I used the wiki feature in my campus’s learning management system (Blackboard). I wanted students to be able to not just produce a text document, but an interactive archive of materials–media, primary sources we’d used in class, and the like–to allow them to think across the various readings, discussions, and activities we’d done in that particular portion of the course. I quickly abandoned the Blackboard wiki, because it, well…it stunk. It was a clumsy interface, and it was impossible for students to access what they’d created in any other medium than Blackboard. I wanted something that was more portable, as well as something they could collectively tailor however they wished. I ended up using Google Docs, and have continued with that platform ever since.

So how does it work? Do I just open a Google Doc and tell my students to build a study guide? As much as I’d like to avoid imposing too much structure on the process, I am cognizant that moving too far in the other direction would also be counterproductive. So I try for the happy medium. I create a Google Doc with some headings that add up to a rough outline for the particular unit or chunk of the course under examination. Then I enable sharing by link, and change the sharing settings to allow anyone with the link to edit (not just view) the document. I use to create a custom short link for the document, and post the link on Blackboard. I also devote one class session to do the lion’s share of building the document. I divide students into groups, let each group select a particular section of the document, and then let them jump in and start creating. Before the first time we do this activity, we have a quick discussion on what types of features a good study guide or review packet would have; I ask the students to think about what helps them organize and retain information, and what they want to be able to do with that specific information. Most of the responses center around issues of connection and application: what are the larger themes that specific information fits into? How do particular events or ideals relate to one another, or inform the process of historical change? What are some examples of larger processes at work? In essence, students want to be able to put the metaphorical trees in the metaphorical forest–which, in a happy confluence, is a necessary step for the type of synthesis and analysis I want them to show on my assessments.

The end products of these exercises have proven even more useful than I anticpated. By the end of a class period, the student groups have populated the template I built with information, images and maps, links to primary sources we’ve used in class, and specific references to other course readings or particular class sessions in order to cross-reference reading and/or discussion notes. The very act of building this sort of document is an excellent alternative to merely re-reading or skimming the material. Working on a particular section with an eye towards peer instruction brings focus and purpose, and also assists students in retaining material better; I knew incorporating this element of peer instruction would be useful, but seeing its effects firsthand has certainly affirmed that sense. Using Google Drive has also allowed students to continue adding to the document, as well as making it more readily accessible. Students can easily pull it up on their mobile devices, or download it in a convenient format (PDF, Word, or Rich-text) that they can then use offline. Most importantly, though, this collaborative exercise makes studying an active, not passive, process. It helps students teach themselves and each other the material and connections between its various aspects. And they get the sense of security and preparedness that a study guide can provide. It’s not the magical answer to all the problems of test preparation; not every student utilizes their resources as much as I wish they would. But for those who do, a crowdsourced study guide has been the answer for how to provide guidance and support for students without closing off avenues of study that they’re better-served taking.

2 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing the Study Guide

  1. I’ve done something similar in the past, except that I used their material for the actual test. I divided them into groups and had them come up with a series of questions (multiple choice, essay, fill in the blank, etc.), they had to provide the correct answers with supporting documentation and share with their classmates. I would then take their questions and work them into the test.

    And, like you wrote, it made the studying active.

    I also discovered, through this process, the topics that the students felt very strongly about — there were a lot of lively discussions over the essays (sometimes more active than during our “actual” class time).

    • I love that idea; I’ve crowdsourced essay questions for my final exams before, and it’s a really cool process, as you point out here. I love it when we can get the sense of where their passions and interestes have been activated.

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