A number of studies show that active learning produces a better learning outcome (11, 12). My personal experience is that the combination of study guides and dialogue lectures can produce better learning outcomes. An R&D project involving nursing students at Stord/Haugesund University College resulted in major academic progress and was very well received by the students. At the same time, the rate of examination failures declined.
A study guide is first and foremost a learning tool that serves to render the students more active and includes supplementary learning material, most often written by the lecturer. The guide tends to include a summary of the main points in the material and the basic principles of the discipline, written in an easily accessible style to promote in-depth understanding. The guide may also contain supplementary illustrations, various exercises, with or without a key, as well as other input that can provide an alternative approach to the learning material and stimulate active learning. The main purpose is to ensure that the lecturer and the students have a shared cognitive platform.
The most important thing we as lecturers can do is to motivate and stimulate the students to independent activity. I believe that the best way to do this is to engage in close dialogue with the students, by way of dynamic dialogue lectures. A study guide is a good tool to engender dialogue, and there-by also motivation and individual activity. Reading fifty pages of dense scientific prose on a subject before a lecture is not purposeful. This produces a cognitive overload in the students, and they are unable to distinguish between the essential and the non-essential elements in the material. However, the students will want to read six to eight pages outlining the essentials, where focus is placed on the basics with an emphasis on in-depth understanding, explained in simple terms in a study guide. They will also solve the pre-lecture assignments, and this will serve as a good basis for a dialogue.
As a result, we will have established an academic community which inspires confidence and acts as an inclusive learning environment that promotes dialogue. By having read the same material and ad-dressed key exercises related to the core material before the lecture, everybody shares the same cognitive platform, and the students have been provided with some pegs on which they can hang the supplementary information.
Study guides are being used in a number of prestigious universities and colleges in the US and Australia, such as Harvard University and Stanford University.
Another reason for supplementing the material with a study guide is that the students often find the scientific content of the textbooks too complicated, and that the books are written in an inaccessible language. Many of the traditional textbooks in natural science disciplines appear to have an excessive information density and contain too much detail in their descriptions.
The authors of textbooks place insufficient emphasis on presenting their material in an easily readable manner, and on describing the simple, basic principles that promote in-depth understanding. Some textbooks are perhaps not primarily written for students, but rather intended to impress colleagues within the discipline. Many textbook authors are fearful of oversimplification and of writing anything that can be picked upon by critically-minded colleagues. This may easily result in a dense stream of new facts, presented in the form of long-winded sentences and abstruse jargon which are hard to understand for a newcomer to the discipline.
In the words of the well-known author of physiology textbooks, Arthur C. Guyton (1919 – 2003): «Many textbooks of medical physiology have become discursive, written primarily by teachers of physiology for other teachers of physiology, and written in a language understood by other teachers of physiology but not easily understood by basic students of medical physiology» (13).