The Crowd-Sourced Study Guide

I won’t bury the lede: the crowd-sourced study guide gets your students to study for the test two weeks in advance.

It’s a scenario that’s familiar to anyone teaching an art history class: as a test or an exam approaches, students inevitably ask for a study guide. My study guides were lengthy and, perhaps this is just me, internally fraught decisions had to be made about what they “had” to know vs. what I thought they “should” know anyways after leaving the class. (And I’m sorry to say, Jan and Hubert van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece rarely made the cut.) Finally, when students received the study guide, they would be dismayed by the number of works of art they had to memorize and no matter what we provided in the study guide, from detailed instructions for the test to “sample” questions that would end up on the test, it seemed like students still weren’t really using the study guide. Or worse yet, they not only used it but approached it as a draft of the test. I can’t be the only person who has heard, “But this wasn’t on the study guide?” even if the “this” was merely a question that had been on the study guide by worded a little differently on the test.

Last year, I began questioning the function of a study guide: to give answers to the test (which is what students seem to want) or to prepare students for the test itself? Should it cover material or cover skills developed in class and assignments? Why should I create a study guide when PowerPoints, handouts, and numberous other resources are made available to students? However, I eventually came up with a new plan: the crowd-sourced study guide!

About two weeks to ten days before a test, students submit a study guide that they created that includes a list of twenty works of art and ten sample essay questions. To create the study guide, they need to use the course schedule to preview upcoming material while reviewing material that we’ve already covered. From students’ self-created study guides, I construct a “master study guide” of works of art and questions that I post to Blackboard one week in advance of the test that contains 20-30 works of art and 10 essay questions that expanded or cleaned up versions of what students submitted. For example, student questions like “What is the Renaissance?” becomes “Explain what ‘Renaissance’ means and how it applies to art in this period. Use one work of art as a representative example or supporting piece of evidence.”

From a pedagogical perspective, the crowd-sourced study guide asks students to take responsibility for their own learning, a guiding principle in Teaching Unprepared Students: Strategies for Promoting Success and Retention in Higher Educationby Kathleen F. Gabriel. She writes, “We all believe that obtaining an education and participating in the educational system, even with all its flaws, is a key to a fulfilling life. But sometimes we forget that students may not share that vision even if they have enrolled in our institutions … Professors can assist students with learning how to be responsible by holding them accountable.” In my classes, students are given a handout with instructions for the study guides, information about the test format, and some basic study tips. Students are then told upfront that more than half the class has to submit a study guide or a study guide won’t be provided at all (one needs a crowd for something to be “crowd-sourced”). I do not accept late study guides, and study guides are treated as informal writing assignments that are graded pass/fall and averaged at the end of the semester. Under the guise of the incentives of a study guide and an easy grade, students take responsibility for their progress in the course and held accountable by their classmates.
Based on my personal experiences, the crowd-sourced study guide has tremendous benefits. I use students’ self-created study guides to help plan the classes leading up to the test so that lesson plans can be tweaked to review material or to incorporate more skill-based activities such as crafting stronger answers for compare and contrast questions. Students’ grades have improved, and not just before and after I began using this particular format, but throughout the semester as students become better at separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak (the Monet from the Manet?). Student engagement during class has also improved in both quantity and quality. They no longer focus only on tiny details from a single work and instead begin to think more broadly and find connections across different periods, styles, movements, and countries. Perhaps most importantly, they engage with the material in greater depth that is then reflected in their study guide questions. While the first study guide usually consists of “what” questions like “What is the Renaissance?” and “What was the status of the artist?” the guides submitted at the end of the semester include more questions that ask “how” and “why”: “How is Neoclassicism related to the ideals of the Enlightenment? Use one work of art to support your answer.”
With this post, I’ve included a simplified version of the handout that I give to my students. However, it’s only fair that the crowd gets a say, too, so let’s conclude with some comments from my Fall 2014 students’ self-evaluations (sic throughout):

• “The study guides helped me study for the tests since I always procrastinate to study for them. Because of these study guides, my study habits dramatically changed from studying the night before the test to studying a week before the test. This really helped improve my test scores and change my study habits.”
• “I loved the idea of a crowd sourced study guide. Although it did not force me to study far in advance, it was an opportunity to at least get my mind thinking in art history mode weeks before the exam. It helped me weed through my notes and uncover recurring themes and ideas discussed in class that held significance.”
• “The test study guides were the easiest assignments because they only require the student to gathers information that is relevant to the test materials and then organizes them in a specific format. In other words, this type of assignment only demands research and organization skills.” (Author’s note: “only”!)
• “I believed the study guides were extremely useful. It also allowed me to go over and review those works of art we discussed in class. In creating the study guide, I’ve realized I was studying at the same time.”
• “I found creating study guides extremely helpful since they placed me into the mind of the professor, and in a way, forced me to test myself if I were in that position.”

Alexis K. Carrozza is a doctoral student in art history at the Graduate Center, CUNY and Graduate Teaching Fellow at Baruch College. She wishes that she had thought of this assignment a long time ago and she would’ve spent less time creating study guides and more time researching Pop art and photography in the sixties.

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