Today we are going to talk all about study guides. Some people love them. Some people hate them. I’m gonna be breaking down the complaints I’ve heard that both students and faculty have about study guides, but I’m also going to explain why I think they’re useful and what the best study guides include. Students, stay to the end of this, and I’ll also walk you through what to do if your teacher never gives you a study guide, but how you can make a DIY one instead! 

So, what is a study guide?

I see study guides in all kinds of different forms because I’ve peeked into thousands of classrooms all over the world in my job as an academic coach. They all are structured differently, but the thing they all have in common is that they are a collection of the ideas and facts that students ultimately will be tested on. Often they’re one page, or one to three pages. Here are just SOME of the ways they can appear:

  • a list of tons of key terms and facts, which can feel a little overwhelming. 
  • a list of 20 main questions 
  • a list of learning objectives with some key terms
  • actual worksheets or outlines that students are invited to fill out 

They look like all kinds of things, but what they always are is a collection of everything that is going to be on the final exam, in a way that helps students see “oh, this is the map of what we’ve done and what I need need to know for the test”

Complaints about study guides

First things first: let’s talk about complaints. Here are the complaints I’ve heard teachers have about study guides

  • “I’m afraid we’re spoon feeding students if we give them a study guide” 
  • They create dependence–the students don’t learn because they just wait for the study guide 
  • Giving students a study guide fosters a lack of critical thinking 
  • It’s a lot of work to put together a study guide and then students don’t use them or don’t use them well 

I think there is an element of truth in all of these, but also I don’t think that means we should throw them out and not give them to students. Instead,  I think we just need to get smart about how we set students up for success through the entire quarter or semester.

Next, let’s look at the complaints students have about study guides

  • The biggest one, and frankly this is my complaint as well as an academic coach, is that students get them too late when there’s not enough time to actually follow through and use them to study.
  • There were things on the test that weren’t on the study guide, so the student didn’t study them 
  • The study guide isn’t graded so there’s no incentive to actually use it 
  • Study guides are so overwhelming (This is true! I have seen study guides that had a hundred or more key terms on them; it was really mind-boggling how much was on there) 
  • Lastly some students complain they don’t get a study guide at all and so they don’t really know what to study for the test

Here’s the problem with both of these lists of complaints: nobody actually teaches teachers and students a way to think about studying so that we’re studying constantly through the entire semester. Students do in fact become dependent on the study guide because they haven’t been able to see how the entire curriculum through the semester has built up to support them to actually be successful on the final exam.

Teachers, if you are worried that you’re spoon feeding students with a study guide, it might actually be that you’re not organized enough in the structure of your curriculum and in the way you enable students to see how you have structured your curriculum. It’s one thing just to teach in a specific way, but it’s another thing to show students how you’ve organized what you’re teaching, to let them know the brain theory behind that organization, and then train students how to use the structure you’ve created when they’re by themselves at home studying. 

I believe too many teachers simply teach the content without helping students see the structure of how they’re teaching so students understand how to use that structure better when they are studying on their own. A good study guide makes visible the structures of how you are teaching and also relates to all of your lectures or all your classroom activities, so students can see that relationship the entire semester long. 

What does a study guide look like?

The best study guides include the following things: 

  1. Overarching questions or learning objectives Not too many and not too few. I think a list of five to seven overarching questions is ideal. If the students are able to answer each of those questions, they probably have a good handle on what the content is. Now, each of those questions might not be answered quickly! They might be answered with 20 or 30 key terms or each one with a five paragraph essay. I’m not saying these are simple to answer questions, but they are a list of the major themes that you really want the student to have a handle on.

  2. Key terms related to the questions A very successful study guide I saw had just five questions and then it had a list of 30 to 40 key terms. This was a history class, and it said the student should be able to understand how to use the key terms to help answer these major questions. 

I do want to guard teachers from having too many key terms on your study guide. I would say 60 or more is too much and so overwhelming. The only way I would recommend that is if you were creating the study guide with students as you went along through the semester, so the students were watching those key terms build. the other way that’s helpful is is for students to have 

  1. An easy way to mark off when the student knows the answer If a student can mark off the questions they know the answer to, they’re able to then easily see which ones they do need to study.

  2. The question types that will be on the exam. One of the tips I give students in my Anti-boring Approach to Powerful Studying online course is to study in the manner of the test. So if your test is going to be a long essay, you want to study not just with flashcards, but by practicing writing an essay or at least an outline to that essay so that you’re practicing articulating the information in the way the teacher is ultimately going to ask you to present it. Alternatively, if it’s going to be mostly multiple choice, flash cards or creating mock multiple choice questions using software such as Quizlet might be a better option for studying. In any event, it’s hard for students to study in the manner of the test if they don’t know what the test is going to look like.

  3. A list of study resources, especially quizzable ones. For example, you might list the unit tests the students could refer to to study, send them to pages in the textbook that have some really good chapter overviews, or even quizzes about the chapter content.
  1. Created in partnership with students throughout the semester. Google Docs is a wonderful way to do this! When you do this, students are being taught how to see what you’re teaching and how to turn what you’re teaching into their own study guide. It’s a wonderful practice of metacognition–learning to think about thinking; and learning to think about the structure of thinking and learning. 

Why are study guides helpful? 

I’m clearly a believer in them, and I clearly don’t believe that they are spoon feeding, but why, especially in today’s learning climate, are study guides helpful?

One word: overload.

I believe that brains and bodies these days have much more information coming at them than we ever did before. When I was a student, I was less in need of a study guide. In fact, I don’t think teachers in the 80s and 90s had the practice of handing out study guides, but back then we only had the textbook we were reading and in class lectures as a teaching style. We didn’t have all of the worksheets coming across the desk, and all of the different “click here, go to this website, study this, answer these questions, do this” that modern students are dealing with. There are so many more types of information coming at students from all kinds of places, it can be hard to track in the midst of all of the creative, pedagogical choices that teachers are making these days to track what are the concrete details that I’m supposed to be learning right now. So a study guide can keep a student focused in the midst of all of this information overload, teaching style overload, and paper and assignment overload.  

As an academic coach, I’m consistently shocked how much paper students are juggling. In this post-pandemic world that we’re in, it’s actually often digital assignments instead of paper, but there’s a lot of stuff flying back and forth. When I was a student, I barely had to turn anything in. I had to write all my answers in my notebook and then class the next day was going over our questions to make sure we had them right or to correct them if they were wrong. That was very boring, but it was very consistent, and so it was always very clear what I needed to know. These days, it’s less clear because teachers are getting more and more creative about how they teach, so a good study guide helps a student structure their studying.

I am consulting in a medical school right now, and many of the teachers–because they don’t want to spoon feed the students (those are their terms)–don’t give study guides. But in their context, because students will need to pass a licensing exam after the class, they need to teach to the test. Ultimately, after this final exam, the student is going to have to pass a board exam in order to be able to move on and to practice medicine in whatever specific way they’re training themselves to practice medicine. So a study guide can help keep them focused on the most important things they’re going to need to know for that licensing exam, and it’s not spoon feeding a student to let them know what they’re going to be tested on in that kind of an environment. 

What to do if your teacher doesn’t provide a study guide

Students, if your teacher doesn’t actually provide you a study guide, you can create a pretty good one for yourself, especially if your teacher is a more traditional style teacher who uses PowerPoint, has a classroom syllabus, or is focused on a textbook.

What you need to do is turn the following things into actual questions. Open up a Google doc or a Microsoft Word doc or get out a piece of notebook paper and:

  1. First, look for the class objectives. Did your teacher list any objectives in their syllabus? If so, those are a wonderful place to know what you’ll be tested on.

    If the objective says, for example, at the end of this course the student will be able to analyze the causes of World War I and World War II,  then you know “what were the causes of World War I?” and “what were the causes of World War II?” are going to be two of your main questions for your DIY study guide. 

Objectives can always be turned into questions. I know they’re super boring to read, but if you just slow yourself down and break the objective into parts, usually you can see one, if not three, questions embedded inside a well-written objective.

Another place you can find a good objective is in your textbooks at the beginning of every chapter. If your teacher has a very textbook-focused teaching wtyle with lots of reading and then lecture based on the reading, you can be pretty sure the objectives at the start of a chapter are the right objectives for you. 

  1. PowerPoint slides have titles to them and usually those titles can be turned into questions. If you are given the PowerPoint slides, you can go back and turn those titles into questions, and then you have a nice list of things you know your teacher will likely want to test you on.

  2. Textbook main headings are a great way to turn things into questions.

  3. Your class notes.  If you had a habit of noticing what are the big topics in the notes, you could turn those topics into questions, as well.

Students, I recommend you sit down and spend an hour paging through everything and make your one page list of questions. 

Then, send your list to your teacher saying,  “hey, I just made myself a study guide. Does this look about right? Is this what you think you’ll be testing us on, and, if so, I’ll use it as my guide for studying.” I bet a teacher would be pretty impressed that you put that kind of effort into getting ready to study! 

Teachers, you also could have a day towards the end of a unit where you ask students to go back and look at all these things and create some questions and submit them to you. That can be a wonderful way to get them doing an overview of what you’ve just taught, and then you can pick the best ones that you think you’re going to put on the test (or maybe you’ve made the test already, so you pick the ones that you know are based on what is in the test) and then share them as a student study guide. It’s a wonderful way to teach students how to think about their own thinking! 

If you have any questions, students or teachers, about any of this, you’re always welcome to come to my monthly office hours. Go here to sign up and get the Zoom link and the recording

Have a complaint about study guides I didn’t list? Send me a message at

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