Teaching Students How to Learn
Students who come to college from high school may not be adequately prepared to succeed in college. It is not just a matter of a lack of content knowledge, but students may be unprepared for the skills, mindset, and habits needed to succeed in college courses. The skills and habits that worked for them in high school may not be enough to succeed at the college level.
Students are often given an abrupt reality check after they get their grades back after their first exam or assignment. They may interpret their stumbles or failures as indicative of some fixed quality about themselves, instead of interpreting it as a challenge for them to overcome (see growth mindset). They may not have adequate coping or help-seeking skills to recover from early stumbles, and fall further and further behind until it is too late to recover. They may have poor metacognitive skills – recognizing for example when some learning strategy is ineffective. There are many Reasons Why We Have to Teach Our Students How to Learn.
The good news is that these skills, habits, and mindsets for college success can be taught to students. Students can learn how to learn in college. But we have to be proactive in reaching these students early before they withdraw.
Usually these skills are taught as part of a rigorous college success course, but they have to be reinforced throughout the curriculum. You as an instructor can incorporate lessons and techniques in your teaching and your advising that can help more of your students succeed and teach them how to learn.
Here are some strategies you can try with your students. Usually the best time to reach them is around the time of that first quiz or exam, when they are ready to listen to your advice for succeeding in your course:
Before the Exam
- Give students a test preparation self-assessment or checklist before the exam. See the 2nd page of this memo to students disappointed with their last test grade (pdf) or this 10 Rules of Good Studying and Bad Studying (pdf) handout. There are also some good videos on Study Skills and Test Preparation (from UCF) and How to Get the Most Out of Studying (by Stephen Chew).
- Consider giving many quizzes or lower-stakes exams instead of only a few very high stakes exams. This way if they stumble on the first exam, it will not be impossible to turn things around.
- Encourage your students to form a study group. See this Study Group Starter Kit for some tips and guidance to help students form effective study groups. In interviews with upper level engineering students at Embry-Riddle, the number one tip they give for success is to form study groups.
- Consider these tips for improving your exam review sessions. Instead of showing students how to solve sample problems, for example (which gives them an illusion of learning), ask them to come up with questions that might be on the test and work through them on their own.
During the Exam
- Add Exam Wrapper questions to your exam or homework assignments to prompt students to reflect on their learning and study strategies. You might ask, for example, how much time did you spend studying for this exam? Or, what learning strategies did you use to prepare for this exam?
- Turn your exam into a learning experience with the Two Stage Exam. Students take the exam individually first, and then they can get into groups and take it again for a small amount of credit. This helps prevent students who do poorly on the first exam from falling further and further behind. They can learn from one another and catch up with the rest of the class. And you won’t need to spend a whole class reviewing the exam later.
After the Exam
- Meet with students who do poorly on your first exam and discuss their learning and study strategies, especially if they indicated they spent a lot of time studying. Talk with them about why they may have struggled on the first exam.
- Was it a time management issue? [tell them about the Pomodoro technique]
- Poor study skills? [see the aforementioned 10 Rules of Good Studying and Bad Studying (pdf) handout]
- Other distractions? Games? Sports? Social clubs? Technology distractions while studying or during class? Students Think They Can Multitask. Here’s Proof They Can’t.
- Low confidence or self-efficacy? See the growth mindset page for some ideas.
- Meeting with students, or even emailing them, can make a tremendous difference in their performance on the next exam. See the graphs on page 4 of this study: Transforming the Lowest-Performing Students: An Intervention That Worked (pdf)
- Saundra McGuire gives a lesson to her whole class after an exam on how learning works (for example the difference between shallow and deep learning), and what it takes to get an A in the course. See the video or the slides from this lesson that you can adapt to your own class.
Other Strategies Outside the Classroom
- Students can be taught how to “learn how to learn” in a rigorous, 3 credit course devoted to that topic.
- Tutoring centers can offer workshops on study skills, time management, and the like, as well as give their tutors extensive, certified tutor training on how to help students learn.
Here are some other strategies suggested by Embry-Riddle faculty at a workshop on this topic:
- Saundra McGuire has several resources related to her book, Teach Students How to Learn
- Introduction to the book (pdf)
- Online Resources for Teach Students How To Learn – including a video of a presentation for students and slides for that presentation that you can adapt to your class
- Teach Students How to Learn: Metacognition is the Key! (pdf slides from a presentation)
- Increasing Student Learning – video
- Study Group Starter Kit
- Linda Nilson also has a book titled Creating Self-Regulated Learners. Here are some other resources from her:
- See also these knowledgebase pages for more resources:
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