As the fall semester is wrapping up at higher education institutions around the country, today’s students are facing multiple distractions head-on. From working full- and part-time jobs to securing internships and maintaining an active social life, students often struggle with balancing a growing number of demands, and their academic performance can suffer greatly.
As the first person in my family to pursue doctoral studies and one who has family members and friends who are first-generation students, I understand what it feels like to have no guideposts and to lack the insight necessary to navigate the higher education system. I vividly remember feeling out of place as a student, as if I was an impostor, until I developed relationships with my peers. Allowing myself to be a bit vulnerable and sharing my experience helped, and I was surprised to find out that many of us were dealing with similar issues. Having these important but sometimes uncomfortable conversations enabled us to support one another.
First-generation students may also face unique obstacles such as taking care of family members while completing their degree, being unable to relate to faculty, having limited financial resources and lacking the appropriate academic preparation and resources prior to enrolling in a higher education institution.
That is why, while pursuing my Ed.D. from Johns Hopkins University, I took the opportunity to conduct a needs assessment study on factors contributing to low academic performance among first-generation students in higher education.
After surveys and interviews, the results showed that students had low academic engagement, social integration and belief in their academic skills as it related to their ability to monitor their thoughts and behaviors. In the second phase of the study, I designed an academic self-regulation intervention to improve academic performance among these students through increasing the use of vital strategies to help them learn more efficiently and build their confidence in using those strategies.
Findings from this study highlight the benefits of an academic self-regulation program on each student’s learning, which has implications for their academic performance and overall success throughout their educational journey.
It’s clear that when leveraging innovative techniques and vital learning strategies, including the examples below, which are evidence-based and grounded in research, higher education students of all ages and backgrounds can better comprehend important course material in a shorter amount of time, enabling them to excel academically while also juggling countless other responsibilities.
- Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro technique is a time-management method utilized to improve productivity while studying. This technique relies on the use of a timer to break down a workflow into 25-minute intervals followed by a five-minute break. This will be repeated three to five times until the tasks at hand are completed. Longer breaks, typically 15 to 20 minutes, are taken after every four Pomodoros. During the break, it’s strongly advised that students choose to focus on an activity that differs from the task at hand.
Stages of Pomodoro include planning, tracking, recording, processing and visualizing. These are all vital skills that students can use throughout their educational journeys and to advance their future careers.
- Retrieval Practice
Retrieval practice is a strategy created to recall information from memory to enhance learning. It involves self-quizzing or other activities such as flash cards, gamified review or written reflections, so a student can easily see what they have learned from memory. Retrieval practice leads to better long-term learning. Rather than cramming for a test at the last minute, which could lead to learning something quickly but only temporarily, practicing retrieval strengthens the connections in a student’s memory and consolidates the learning for an extended amount of time.
For example, if a student is studying anatomy-related content, this technique can be utilized by naming the structures without looking at the list. After students have identified all the structures, they would then look at their notes or textbook to see if they were correct.
- Spacing Effect
When using the spacing effect technique, the material to be studied is simply spaced out in time with irrelevant activities mixed in between. If information to be learned is studied in a distributed fashion or spaced over time, it’s learned more slowly but retained for much longer. Spacing out the learning process over the course of different days may improve memory through neural consolidation processes that occur during sleep. If information needs to be remembered for a longer period, it’s beneficial to have longer amounts of spacing between repeated learning opportunities.
Interleaving blends different topics or skills to facilitate learning. Rather than studying only one type of question at a time, a student would study many different examples of a given topic. For example, multiplication, addition, subtraction and division problems would be all mixed together. Blocked practice, on the other hand, entails studying one topic thoroughly before moving on to the next subject. While repetition is important, learners can comprehend the topic more effectively if they practice it along with other key skills. Interleaving, sometimes known as mixed practice or varied practice, facilitates learning and improves long-term retention of the content over all.
- Elaborative Interrogation
Elaborative interrogation is a learning strategy that involves students asking themselves questions and then providing plausible explanations to statements while studying. Asking and then answering how and why questions when studying can help any student think through the issues that surround this topic to better grasp the main idea.
The strategy will also help a student interested in learning to remember the information in a more detailed manner, create new explanations for the concepts being studied and connect new information with any pre-existing knowledge. Once questions are developed, students must answer them by referring to their knowledge base, establishing a connection between the new and old information.
- Dual Coding
Dual coding combines words and visual information, such as images, charts, diagrams, graphs and graphic organizers, while studying. Students must pay close attention to the visuals and then pair them with the text by explaining its meaning in their own words. Utilizing both formats of information—words and visual images—provides two different ways to remember the information and enhances understanding and memory, enabling students to retain information better than before.
- Concrete Examples
Using concrete examples entails taking abstract concepts and creating examples based on real-life experiences to solidify a student’s understanding of the concepts. Abstract concepts are vague and may be difficult for students to understand. Generating concrete, relatable and specific examples helps learners to better comprehend the information. Creating a connection between the concept that a student is studying and a concrete example can more easily connect it with a student’s existing knowledge, helping to boost retention.
However, it’s important to ensure that the examples that students generate are accurate—so when in doubt, they should be verified with the instructor.
While first-generation students typically underperform academically compared to their continuing-generation peers, educators can help these students see ongoing success by assisting them in improving their learning and study skills.