Teach Students How to Learn

Patrik Hultberg, Coordinator of Educational Effectiveness, Professor of Economics, Kalamazoo College
Contact at: Patrik.Hultberg@kzoo.edu

[Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on Kalamazoo’s “Teaching Commons” on Sept. 26, 2016. It has been slightly updated for this version.]

All of us want our students to learn as much as possible in our courses. This is why we stay current in our disciplines, attend workshops related to pedagogy and teaching effectiveness, and perhaps pick up the occasional book on teaching. Many of us, perhaps all, have experienced the frustration associated with our best intentions not leading to student success in our current course and a lack of transfer of learning to future courses. It is possible, perhaps likely, that deep and sustainable learning by our students require them to act differently. There might be a need for our students to employ more effective learning strategies.

This is what Dr. McGuire proposes in her book “Teaching Students How to Learn.” She recommends, nay urges us, the professors, to be the ones to teach our students how to learn our material more effectively. Our first reaction might be that this is not our responsibility and that students should have learned to study in high school. Unfortunately, it is and they have not. If we truly want our students to learn the material we care so deeply about, we should teach them how to learn it – and Dr. McGuire’s book tells us how to do so.

Dr. McGuire presents 39 learning strategies for students and 33 strategies for instructors (as well as step-by-step guidelines and PowerPoint slides). Far too many helpful tips to elaborate on in this brief note, but the concept of metacognition, the ability to think about your own thinking, lies at the heart of her approach (p. 16). Her strategies focus on students being aware of themselves as learners and problem solvers; to be able to actively seek out solutions and accurately judge their own progress toward solutions without relying on others to provide answers for them.

To help students develop metacognition, Dr. McGuire offers learning strategies, which she defines as anything that helps the student/learner engage with, process, remember, and apply information (p. 27). Dr. McGuire promotes active learning, as well as asking our students to move up the Bloom taxonomy of learning levels, and her suggestions are mostly focused on what students will do at home, away from our classrooms.

In broad terms Dr. McGuire recommends that students use the “study cycle,” which incorporates a preview of material before class, class attendance, review of material after class, 3-5 intense study sessions per day, and finally assessment of their own learning (p. 39). Naturally the intense study sessions are especially important for learning and Dr. McGuire recommends setting specific learning goals, using active learning tasks, and review (as well as taking breaks as needed). These are great recommendations and can be easily combined with evidence-based learning principles from cognitive psychology such as spacing, interleaving, generation, elaboration, and retrieval practice (Brown et al., 2014), which would further support deep and lasting learning.

Dr. McGuire puts a special emphasis on reading strategies and in doing so she argues against the common practice of students simply reading and re-reading textbooks and notes, a practice that might have sufficed in high school but is likely to fail in college. In brief, her recommendations for effective reading involve student preview, active reading, and retrieval practice after completing the reading. She also presents many additional strategies ranging from note taking techniques, use of homework (don’t look at solved examples), time management, and mindset considerations. Dr. McGuire also encourages us, the teachers, to construct courses and lessons that foster intrinsic motivation among our students by fostering autonomy, competence, and a sense of belonging among our students.

Dr. McGuire thus makes a strong case for why we should teach our students how to learn and she gives us all the tools necessary to actually doing so. The question is, will we?

As I reflect on my own courses, it is clear that I’m currently using several of the strategies suggested by Dr. McGuire, but not all. Some examples of strategies that I have adopted are:

  • Strategy 8. Create a course syllabus that makes your expectations, your course structure, requirements for success, and student responsibilities crystal clear.

I spend a significant amount of time creating syllabi using backward-design. That is, I first attempt to determine what skills and knowledge I wish for my students to have at the end of the course (course goals/outcomes). Next, I think about how I will know whether or not students have achieved these goals; that is, what kinds of assessment are needed. I then determine what learning activities a student should be exposed to in order to be prepared for the chosen assessment activities – in my classes this mainly involves active learning projects (problem solving) and various formative assessment opportunities. Finally, I consider what resources I need to make available for students (readings, videos).

  • Strategy 9. Require a textbook.

I require students to read a textbook section (and/or article) before each class session (sometimes I ask them to watch videos instead). I ensure that all students do the required reading (watching) by giving them a quiz, usually online, before the class begins. I do not “reteach” material from the textbook, rather I expect students to “know” (remember and have basic understanding) the material so that we can work on higher levels of learning in class (Bloom’s taxonomy: deeper understanding, applying, analyzing, and evaluating).

  • Strategy 13. Interweave assessment and teaching by testing early and often. Doing so will encourage more students to keep pace with the course.

I’m a strong believer in testing (retrieval practice), so I use low stakes summative assessment activities regularly and often. I also use formative assessment as an active learning activity in my classes quite often (team quizzes and problems, individual problems combined with think-pair-share). My courses are largely structured around students always being up to speed in the course; e.g. pre-class quizzes ensure this. I have reduced the number of high-stakes exams, often offering no more than two (midterm and final). I have also tried to introduce more student agency and choice in my courses, but I can still improve on this effort.

  • Strategy 19. Make class sessions more engaging by introducing active learning strategies such as think-pair-share, small group problem solving, and reflection questions.

Since I have switched most of my courses to the flipped classroom approach, my face-to-face interactions with students are almost exclusively active learning projects. I rarely lecture more than 30 minutes during a two-hour class session.

  • Strategy 24. Give students opportunities to work together in small groups by administering group quizzes, group problem-solving exercises, or group projects.

As I mentioned, this is the general approach during my face-to-face time with students. I often use team quizzes, sometimes asking the students to take the quiz first individually and then as part of a team (grade is weighted average of the two). Group problem-solving activities are my main pedagogical strategy in class. I also assign many group projects outside of class, such a team papers and presentations.

  • Strategy 1. Emphasize that students’ actions, not their intelligence, will determine their success.

I try to create a supportive environment in the classroom by emphasizing that I believe all students can be successful and that I will be there to help each one of them attain success (Strategy 2) and I encourage them to help each other. I also emphasize that a good way to learn is to learn from one’s mistakes. Hence, if possible, I give students an opportunity to redo assignments as needed (retake the quiz, rewrite the paper, fix a mistake on an assignment) as long as they make a sincere effort on the first try. That is, any student willing to engage with the material and take the time to learn from his or her mistakes will be successful.

Unfortunately, there are still several strategies that I have not yet adopted in my classes. Some of these are emphasized by Dr. McGuire as being very important. Here are some examples of strategies that I could still adopt: 

  • Strategy 3. Teach students about metacognition, Bloom’s taxonomy, and the study cycle.
  • Strategy 6. Give a 45-minute learning strategies presentation after students receive the results of their first test or quiz.
  • Strategy 18. Provide students with targeted feedback, perhaps with a comment that you are providing the feedback because you have high standards and believe in their ability to meet or exceed them. I do give students feedback, but not as “targeted” as described here.
  • Strategy 23. Assign students real-world tasks to help them develop a sense of belonging to the larger community.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., and M. A. McDaniel, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Cambridge: Belknap Press. 2014.

McGuire, S. Y. Teach Students How to Learn. Virginia: Stylus Publishing. 2015

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