Hints for the new semester: Teach Students How to Learn

Welcome to another academic year! I teach at a large 2-year community college outside of Washington D.C. I find that many of my students are not prepared for college work. I’m not talking about not being prepared for class, as in not having the textbook, or not taking notes (though that happens too) but understanding HOW to read the textbook, HOW to take notes, and HOW to study for a multi-chapter exam. Do you have this problem?

I’ve heard all the typical excuses we make for students, how we try to rationalize why their study skills are so weak. But the fact remains: they are in our classes now, and we need to help them succeed.

I am, after all, one of many educators who believes that education is THE path to economic and social upward mobility, at least in this fast-paced, competitive, capitalist Western culture.  And when I say “education”, that is really Education with a capital E.  An Educated person is not just filled with content. An Educated person knows how to figure out what they do and don’t know, how to communicate effectively, how to get to work on time, how to solve problems, and how to identify proper resources and information. I’m sure that there are other skills and values. Feel free to share them with me.

So, what’s the answer?  Well, I’m sure that no one approach fits all situations or students. I’m just going to share one strategy that worked for me. I recommend reading “Teach Students How to Learn” by Dr. Saundra McGuire, a Chemistry professor (emeritus) from Louisiana State University (LSU). Her book is easy to read and contains lots of useful tidbits, as well as specific research citations to back up her claims. Her premise is that students are never taught HOW to learn.  They suffer academically because they are not self-aware.  They don’t realize what they are doing to study doesn’t yield results. They aren’t self-reflective, instead preferring to throw around external excuses.  She discusses the art of Metacognition, the ability to know what it is you know and what it is you don’t.  Dr. McGuire proposes that we need to teach students HOW to learn. We need to present them with strategies to encourage them to be self-reflective.

Typically, students do very poorly on the first exam.  This is a good time to have them do some self-reflection.  At this point, when they are feeling vulnerable, but still have a whole semester ahead of them, I took 10 minutes of classtime to discuss the definition and application of metacognition.  Of all the presentations I did last semester, the metacognition session was the one that students remembered. Plus, the skills of metacognition aren’t specific to one discipline. Professors in chemistry, geography, English, math, history, art, music and others can ALL use this information to help our students learn what it is they know and don’t know.  I’m more and more convinced that academic success is tied to habits of mind more than pure I.Q.  You don’t have to be smart IN school, you have to be smart AT school.

Try it. Read the book. And coach your students on how to think. And good luck!