Using Study Guides in the Classroom

By Steve Willshaw, Senior Leader for English


Most of our students buy study guides, don’t they? Often they seem to assume that spending money will, on its own, guarantee them a higher exam grade. It doesn’t always occur to our students that they have to read the guide and engage with its ideas if it is to have any benefit.

Here are ten ways in which you, as their English teacher, can show your students how they can get value from their purchase by creating worthwhile revision tasks for your classroom.

  1. Ranking – lots of study guides embed quotations within their analysis of the text. Choose a section (such as a specific theme or character) and ask groups of students to rank the quotes by importance and justify their decisions.
  2. Most study guides, including York Notes, contain pages dedicated to the main characters in the text. Give chosen students one of these pages each and ask them to use it to prepare for a hot-seating exercise in which they take on that role and answer questions posed by the rest of the class.
  3. Low-stakes quizzes are a great way to check on students’ understanding of a text. Using a study guide to help you formulate the questions for these will speed up the process and ensure comprehensive coverage.
  4. Some texts might have been misunderstood. Why not use study guides to help you to create multiple-choice questions about key themes? Adapting material from the guide will enable you to write answers that sound right but aren’t, thus revealing the depth of students’ knowledge.
  5. Study guides will only have a positive impact if students engage with them. Encourage this by giving them sections (a summary of an Act or list of a character’s key actions) with important details removed. Groups have to work out what is missing.
  6. Understanding the rhythm of a text is important. Help students to see the bigger picture by getting them to use the information in a study guide to create a chart, showing when a key character is on stage or when a major theme is being discussed.
  7. Ask students to find something in a study guide that they disagree with and encourage them to support their argument with evidence.
  8. Inspire a wider understanding of interpretation by reading a study guide with the class, encouraging them to identify ideas that depend solely on information from within the text and others that use additional, external information (historical, biographical, psychological etc).
  9. Read short sections of a page from a study guide (you could use act or chapter summaries, thematic sections or character pages) and award points to the team that is first to correctly identify the subject. They should explain how they know.
  10. Ask students to read a section of a study guide and annotate it with questions. What do they not fully understand? What would they like explaining further? Then pass the questions on to a different group, asking them to write the answers they think the guide author might give.

These ideas should help your classes to get to know their study guides, and the texts they are based on. Hopefully they will also make it more likely that your students will engage with the guides independently as well as in the classroom.

Steve Willshaw is a Senior Leader for English, author, and former Head of English.