Despite Good Intentions, More is Not Always Better


by Lauren Scharff, U.S. Air Force Academy*

A recent post to the PSYCHTEACH listserv got me thinking about my own evolution as a teacher trying my best to help the almost inevitable small cluster of students who struggled in my courses, often despite claiming to “have studied for hours.” The post asked “Have any of you developed a handout on study tips/skills that you give to your students after the first exam?” A wide variety of responses were submitted, all of which reflected genuinely good intentions by the teachers.

However, based on my ongoing exploration of metacognition and human learning, I believe that, despite the good intentions, some of the recommendations will not consistently lead to the desired results. Importantly, these recommendations actually seem quite intuitive and reasonable on the surface, which leads to their appeal and continued use. Most of those that fall into this less ideal category do so because they imply that “More is Better.”

For example, one respondent shared, “I did correlations of their test scores with their attendance so far, the number of online quizzes they have taken so far, and the combined number of these two things. [All correlations were positive ranging from 0.35 to 0.57.] So I get to show them how their behaviors really are related to their scores…”

This approach suggests several things that all seem intuitively positive: online quizzes are a good way to study and attending class will help them learn. I love the empowerment of students by pointing out how their choice of behaviors can impact their learning! However, the message that more quizzes and simple attendance will lead to better grades does not capture the true complexity of learning.

Another respondent shared a pre-post quiz reflection assignment in which some of the questions asked about how much of the required reading was completed and how many hours were put into studying. Other questions asked about the use of chapter outcomes when reading and studying, the student’s expected grade on the quiz, and an open-ended question requesting a summary of study approaches.

This pre-post quiz approach seems positive for many reasons. Students are forced to think about and acknowledge levels and types of effort that they put into studying for the quizzes. There is a clear suggestion that using the learning outcomes to direct their studying would be a positive strategy. They are asked to predict their grades, which might help them link their studying efforts with predicted grades. These types of activities are actually good first steps at helping students become more metacognitive (aware and thoughtful) about their studying. Yea!

However, a theme running through the questions seems to be, again, “more is better.” More hours. More reading. The hidden danger is that students may not know how to effectively use the learning outcomes, how to read, how to effectively engage during class, how to best take advantage of practice quizzes to promote self-monitoring of learning, or what to do during those many hours of studying.

Thus, the recommended study strategies may work well for some students, but not all, due to differences in how students implement the strategies. Therefore, even a moderately high correlation between taking practice quizzes and exam performance might mask the fact that there are subgroups for which the results are less positive.

For example, Kontur and Terry (2013) found the following in a core Physics course, “On average, completing many homework problems correlated to better exam scores only for students with high physics aptitude. Low aptitude physics students had a negative correlation between exam performance and completing homework; the more homework problems they did, the worse their performance was on exams.”

I’m sure you’re all familiar with students who seem to go through “all the right motions” but who still struggle, become frustrated, and sometimes give up or develop self-doubt about their abilities. Telling students to do more of what they’re already doing if it’s not effective will actually be more harmful.

This is where many teachers feel uncomfortable because they are clearly working outside their disciplines. Teaching students how to read or how to effectively take notes in class, or how to self-monitor their own learning and adjust study strategies to different types of learning expectations is not their area of expertise. Most teachers somehow figured out how to do these things well on their own, or they wouldn’t be teachers now. However, they may never have thought about the underlying processes of what they do when they read or study that allowed them to be successful. They also feel pressures to cover the disciplinary content and focus on the actual course material rather than learning skills. Unfortunately, covering material does little good if the students forget most of the content anyway. Teaching them skills (e.g., metacognitive study habits) offers the prospect of retaining more of the disciplinary content that is covered.

The good news is that there are more and more resources available for both teachers and students (check out the resources on this website). A couple great resources specifically mentioned by the listserv respondents are the How to Get the Most out of Studying videos by Stephen Chew at Samford University and the short reading (great to share with both faculty and students) called The Six Hour D… and How to Avoid it by Dewey (1997). Both of these highlighted resources focus on metacognitive learning strategies.

This reflection on the different recommendations is not meant to belittle the well-intentioned teachers. However, by openly discussing these common suggestions, and linking to what we know of metacognition, I believe we can increase their positive impact. Share your thoughts, favorite study suggestions and metacognitive activities by using the comments link below, or submitting them under the Teaching Strategies tab on this website.


Dewey, R. (1997, February 12) The “6 hour D” and how to avoid it. [Online]. Available:

Kontur, F. & Terry, N. The benefits of completing homework for students with different aptitudes in an introductory physics course. Cornell Physics Library Physics Education. arXiv:1305.2213


* Disclaimer: The views expressed in this document are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U. S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U. S. Govt.


3 thoughts on “Despite Good Intentions, More is Not Always Better

  1. M Baldwin

    All of us like well-intentioned students, but few of us think that good intentions are enough. Likewise, most teachers genuinely want to help their students, but this doesn’t mean that their study advice will lead to student success. Thank you Lauren for prompting me to think more carefully about HOW I help students learn to study. I’d like to think that my students come to college already knowing how to study, but I have to admit that it is probably not the case.

  2. John Draeger

    This is very helpful. “Putting in the time” is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for success (in most things). I suspect most us have been frustrated when trying to learn a new skill (e.g., picking up the guitar after twenty years, working on the plumbing in the house, helping children with their homework). While new skills take time to develop, it is also the case that good mentors and role models are important because they have the practical know-how that can help us to develop in positive ways. I think Lauren is right to argue that the “more is better” strategy suggests that student effort is sufficient for success. This is both false and keeps us from a more fine-grained understanding of student troubles.

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