It didn’t take long into my teaching career to realize that my students had no idea how to prepare for tests. While many schools are moving away from tests as a whole, I have still taught in multiple schools that give tests at the completion of each unit as a way to prepare students for end-of-course exams. I knew I wanted to teach my students how to use study guides in high school effectively – but what makes that different from how study guides are used at other grade levels?
When people traditionally think of a study guide, they think of a tool to help students prepare for a test that outlines key topics that may or may not be included. We often picture a fill-in-the-blank review guide (traditionally seen at the middle school level) or a bulleted list of topics (traditionally seen at the college level). But what does an appropriate study guide for high school students look like?
Through a LOT of trial and error, I developed a system for using study guides in high school that was incredibly effective for both me and my students, and I am excited to share with you:
- Why I do them
- How I do them
- What students do
- When they do them
- How I go over them with students
Why I do study guides in high school science
I think it is important to teach our students how to study. This is a muscle that they have to exercise if they are going on to any form of higher education or job that will have training and or testing (Ex. Getting a captain’s license for a boat, an esthetician license, or a mortgage license – all require studying and testing, despite not requiring a college degree!)
I think a huge part of teaching high schoolers is preparing them for the future with all the skills they need to succeed – regardless of what their future may look like – and studying is a part of that.
Additionally, I want my summative assessments to authentically assess what my students know. While I don’t give my students the questions in advance, there shouldn’t be any surprises, because everything that shows up on a summative assessment should align with what has been actually taught in class. This is one reason why I batch design all my lessons when writing units for my full-year curricula. You can read more about my curriculum design process here.
So not only do study guides serve my students by helping me to teach them how to study, but they also serve me as the teacher, acting as a barometer for if I am actually teaching my students the things I assess them on. But they are only effective at accomplishing both of these goals if done well. So, how do I do them?
How I do study guides in high school science
Here are the most important factors for creating effective study guides in high school science:
- Write the study guide as you lesson plan for a unit.
- I know this sounds hard, but it is necessary. This is why batch lesson planning is so important!!
- Tweak the study guide after you’ve written the summative assessment for the unit.
- Yes, you need to write the test before the unit begins. How can you effectively hit your goals with a unit if you haven’t set them yet?
- Include more than just bullet points and less than actual test questions.
- I often include two things:
- Objectives for each concept I teach → what do I hope students will know or be able to do by the end of the unit?
- Essential vocabulary → what words must they be able to define to understand the content?
- I often include two things:
- Distribute the study guide at the start of the unit.
- Yes, you read that right! This is critical for success. We want students to know what is expected of them from day one of a unit.
- It also gives them PLENTY of time to complete the study guide and encourages them to do what we all want them to do – study throughout the entire unit rather than cramming the night before. How do we expect more from them than cramming if we give them a study guide only a few days before a test?
- This is another reason why I LOVE teaching with packets. Packets hold me accountable for batch lesson planning, aligning all assessments and instructional resources, and ensuring my study guides are done and handed to my students day one of a unit (the cover page of my packets serve as their study guide).
What students actually do for the study guide
I keep my study guides simple. I want to provide students just enough support that it is clear what they need to know and be able to do, but not too much that they aren’t having to do anything other than answer practice questions. Instead, I want students to use my unit outlines to create their own study guides to study from.
Here is how I do that:
- I divide each unit I write into 3-6 concepts.
- For each concept, I come up with a list of objectives and essential vocabulary. Again:
- Objectives = what I hope students will know or be able to do by the end of the unit
- Essential vocabulary = words students need to be able to define to understand the content
- ^^^This becomes the first page of each unit packet I give my students, but could also just be the first thing you give your students at the start of a unit.
- Students will then make a study guide for each concept throughout the unit. For their study guide they must:
- Answer all objectives and
- Define all vocabulary on the first page of the packet
- If an objective is italicized, they don’t have to include anything for it, as those represent skills that would be hard to show mastery of on paper, however they do need to be able to do ALL of the objectives on the assessment.
- Students get complete freedom to format these however is most helpful for them!!
- Some students like to type these, some hand write them.
- Some like to make flip charts, while others use Quizlet.
- I just encourage students to make them as visual as possible. They shouldn’t write their study guides in paragraph form.
- I encourage them to make Venn diagrams, tables, and other charts to make their study guides visually appealing – and something they would actually like to study from.
It is incredibly important that we continually encourage students to make study guides in formats that are useful for THEM. The study guide will not be effective unless it is something they will actually refer back to and use (although even the process of making them is helpful).
For lower-level students, the first one can be especially hard. Give them this How to Write a GREAT Study Guide help sheet. Also, build in class time at first for students to work on these so that you can monitor them!
When they actually get done
So a few years into teaching I stopped assigning homework in my high school science classes. You can read more about that decision and what came from it in this post here.
But I knew that eliminating homework would force me to build in more class time for students to do what I wanted them to do. This did, however, free students up to have more time to use their time at home to actually practice studying – the essential skill I wanted to help them with and the whole reason why I think it is so important to use study guides in high school.
I love having these study guides to point students to if they finish something more quickly than I anticipated. My students also find it incredibly motivating to stay on task in my class, because they know if they do, I will have built-in all of the time they need to do their study guides in class, meaning:
- They can ask me questions as they work on them.
- They truly never have real “homework” in my class!
Students are also motivated to do these well because, after our first test, I have them take out their study guide and go through it next to their test. We make a game of pointing out how which objective or vocabulary term each test question aligns with. This eliminates any of the “you never taught us this!!” statements. It also makes students take doing the study guides seriously because they can see a direct correlation between doing the study guide and how it will help them succeed on the end of unit assessment.
How we go over them
I have switched up how I actually grade them depending on the age and personalities of the group of students in my class. In general, here are the two overall strategies I’ve most often used:
- Regularly encourage students to work on their study guides throughout the unit. Spot check all of them for completion towards the end of the unit, and then we go over them together as a class using the .pptx study guide answer key I have made for each unit.
- Collect each concept study guide throughout the unit. So after we have finished Concept 1, I collect that one and grade for accuracy. I don’t use a rubric because I don’t care stylistically how they choose to make the study guide at all, just that they answer all of the objectives and define the vocabulary accurately. So I read through each one and circle anything that isn’t correct so they know to make changes and study the right thing. I return within 1 day so they have them to study from.
It is totally up to you and your personal preference. You don’t have to ever even look at them if you don’t want to – I didn’t for my AP Biology students, as most were motivated to do them on their own. In my experience, the younger students need the most support and checks to make sure they are really doing them.
I hope this has helped you consider how you can best use study guides in high school science courses! Have you done anything differently that’s been effective for you? I’d love to hear! You can let me know here.