Personalized Study Guides


One of my professional goals this year is to increase the opportunities I give students for differentiation by readiness. Using personalized study guides is one way I accomplish this.

It also helps students develop metacognitive skills by providing them with ways to assess their learning before the test and make an action plan to meet their goal.

Here’s how it works:

List Skills from the Test

I start with my summative test and make a list of all of the skills students need to demonstrate mastery of the unit. Since I am at an IB school, these skills often come straight from my rubrics, but I also bring in some information from our state standards. For example:

  • Skill 1: I can identify whether something is abiotic or biotic and explain my thinking.
  • Skill 2: I can describe scientific knowledge about the 3 major domains of life, including the number of cells, presence or absence of a nucleus, and way energy is obtained.
  • Skill 3: I can use scientific evidence to make judgments about whether viruses are living or non-living.

An added bonus of explicitly listing these skills is that sometimes I discover my assessment is weak (not enough opportunity for higher level thinking skills), incomplete, or fails to align with what’s really important for students to learn. Then, I can go back and make adjustments to my instruction or assessment as needed.

Create the Study Guide

Next, I create 1 section of the study guide to correspond with each skill. I make sure that the activities correspond to the skills.

From the example above, Section 1 might have pictures of different items (a branch, a leaf, a drop of water) where students have to correctly identify whether it is abiotic or biotic along with a few lines to explain their thinking.

In Section 2, I might include some matching items to help students build their confidence in this content-heavy section, but I would also provide opportunities to describe knowledge–since that’s what the skill demands.

In Section 3, I need to include a task that helps students practice what I will ask them to do on the test. I can ask them to write an outline or paragraph about whether viruses are living or not. I can provide tools to support their thinking, such as asking them to highlight at least 3 pieces of scientific evidence.

When I began to truly match my study guides to what I was asking students to do on the test, I noticed that my study guides became more rigorous and more helpful to students.

Help Students Figure Out Which Sections to Do

For the study guide to become personalized, students must eliminate sections they have already mastered and focus their attention on what they still need to learn.

This is tough for students because it feels good to study material you are already familiar with!

To help students with this, I make a table of contents for the study guide. Here’s an example:

I leave “formative feedback” blank because sometimes they will need to write in different types of information for each section. For example, for Section 1, I may ask students to write in their Quizlet score. For Section 3, I may ask them to write the peer feedback they received from a prior writing exercise on using scientific evidence.

Then I give them some whole-class guidance on which checkbox to mark.

  • Did you make less than 80% on your vocabulary quiz? –> Check “yes — required”
  • Did you make 80-89% OR do you feel like you could use some extra review? –> Check “yes — for extra practice”
  • Did you make 90% or above AND feel confident in your vocabulary knowledge? –> Check “No — mastered it!”

Let Them Work!

After students identify what they need to work on, I give them time to complete it. Often students will move to specific tables for each skill, where I leave additional resources and answer keys for that section. Plus, they get the added benefit of working together on those tasks.

While they are working, this gives me an opportunity to pull small groups for additional teacher support prior to the test.

How do you use personalized study guides or other forms of differentiation to help students prepare for the test? What is something I should add to my study guides?

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