Using Study Objectives to Help Students Focus

Teachers can help guide students into good study habits with objectives in order to ensure learning and retention of important concepts.

Learning June 7, 2021

A typical course requirement might be to read a chapter or several chapters and then prepare for a test on the content.  But many textbook chapters can be anywhere from 30 to 50 pages long.  How do students know which parts to focus on?  They have been told that highlighting certain sentences or re-reading the chapter does not work well as a studying tactic. Should they study vocabulary, case studies, research experiments, famous persons, or even exemptions to the rule?  It can be overwhelming, especially if the test is on more than one chapter.  How can teachers help students to know which parts of a chapter are most important and make sure that they learn?

A good solution is to use study objectives for each chapter which focus on exactly what students need to learn.  Students can read through the chapter and then write out answers which can be reviewed.  Although some exam questions may come only from lectures or handouts, most teachers take 75% of test questions from the textbook. Study objectives can also be made into practice tests which are best done with another student.

A general guide to mastering the material is given in the course outline. The teacher can use this to show students recommended study habits, such as:

         1)  Obtain a loose leaf notebook in which you can store all class materials including study objectives, exams, and lecture notes.

         2)  Set up a specific study time schedule during which you plan to read and memorize the concepts presented in this course.

         3)  Copy down all notes written on the blackboard.  If you are absent, please arrange to obtain lecture notes from another student.

         4)  Use a 4-pronged study technique: first, skim the chapter; secondly, write out the answers to study questions; reread the chapter and lecture notes for meaning and understanding; and finally use an intense brief review shortly before the exam.

         5)  Arrange to meet with a study group consisting of several other class members to review study objectives and lecture notes.

         6)  Attend the weekly review which is always the evening before the next day’s exam. 

         7)  Ask for tutorial help if you are having difficulty with the class.

Give students study objectives by breaking down the chapter into basic definitions for vocabulary terms, contrasts between similar terms, short answer essay questions, drawing a graph to describe a data set, a clinical vignette to select diagnosis or treatment options, and giving examples of concepts. 

A partial set of Study Objectives for the chapter is as follows:

5)      Contrast rods vs. cones.  List 4 differences for each. (128 & Concept Summary & lecture)

6)      Describe the concept of centre-surround cells in the ganglion cells. (129,4-130,2 & 

10)   Describe the following visual problems: (132,2-134,2

a.       prosopagnosia

b.      visual agnosia

c.       akinetopsia

11)   Color vision: (134,3-138,2 & Concept Summary 138)

a.       Describe the trichromatic theory of Young and Helmholtz (1850).

b.      Describe the opponent process theory of Hering (1870).

c.       Which theory is considered correct today?

Page numbers and paragraphs are in parentheses after each question which guides the students in their studying.  Study objectives can easily be turned into test questions when studying in pairs.

By using the actual test in a partial example, students will have been exposed to most of the concepts several times before the real test.

For students having difficulty mastering the concepts, a review is presented the night before the exam.  Much of the guessing about what to study is taken away so most students should be able to study effectively.  Exams are presented for each chapter from the textbook so no midterm exam is necessary. A cumulative final exam often contains questions from previous units in order to put them in long term memory. A well taught Intro course is often how we attract students as majors in Psychology or any subject.


PhD, R Psych is Chair and Professor of Psychology at Burman University, Canada, where he has taught for over 25 years. Academic training was at Rutgers University and Western Michigan University. He teaches a wide range of courses from Intro to Psych for 1st-year students to History & Systems of Psychology as a capstone course for majors. He is a member of both CPA and APA and a Registered Psychologist in Alberta.

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