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Four Ways to Incorporate Learning-to-Learn into Any Course

I just returned to Chicago from the Lilly Conference on Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning, and if there had to be one take-away concept from the conference that I could share with all DePaul faculty it would be this: no matter what you teach, incorporate learning-to-learn into every course.

As committed educators, we hope to see students succeed, persevere, and become life-long learners. And we also want to prepare students for today’s rapidly-changing job market, where they can expect to switch careers several times over the course of their lifetime. Successful career shifters will be flexible and able to quickly develop new skills.

Photograph of a person reading and texting simultaneously

Multitasking in the Park” by David Goehring (CC BY 2.0).

The problem is that students often don’t use effective strategies for learning. Many mistakenly believe that multitasking–texting while doing course readings–doesn’t impact their ability to quickly and successfully complete their homework, or that staying up late cramming for an exam will help them earn an A in the course.

The consequence of not teaching students how to learn is that they are not reaching their full potential as learners inside or outside of the classroom.

Incorporating learning-to-learn into a course can be done through simple interventions, and doesn’t need to take away time from teaching course content. In fact, learn-to-learn activities can tie directly into content-focused exams, readings, and lectures. Try implementing one of these approaches in a course this quarter:

1. Model a learning tactic in class. 

Research on students’ in-class attention spans suggests that even medical students’ concentration levels decrease sharply after about fifteen minutes (Nilson, 2010, p. 117). An effective learning tactic to keep your students focused is to pause every 15-20 minutes and lead them in a brief activity, such as writing down a question, participating in a course poll, or turning to the person next to them to discuss a question. As you facilitate the activity, explain to students that pausing every 15-20 minutes is an effective learning tactic–one that they can use when studying outside of class. Being explicit about what you’re doing and why will make students more likely to try the learning tactic on their own.

2. Teach a process. 

As one workshop presenter pointed out at the Lilly conference, facilitating “durable” learning depends on changing students’ attitudes and forming new habits. In order to change students’ habits, it’s helpful to introduce them to a new process for completing a task and have them reflect on how well that process worked for them. You might teach a process for writing a paper, creating a study schedule, taking notes, planning a group project, or completing reading assignments.

For guidance on how to teach reading strategies, check out Lucy Rinehart and Darsie Bowden’s materials for their 2013 Teaching Commons workshop Reading Strategies: Helping Students Read Effectively. I particularly recommend one resource they point to: David Concepcion’s article on why and how he teaches his students an explicit process for reading philosophy texts.

3. Ask students to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning. 

I argued in a previous post for the importance of asking students regulate their own learning by setting goals, implementing a plan to reach those goals, and evaluating their progress. To promote self-regulated learning, try having students write an informal paper (in class or as a low-stakes homework assignment) in the beginning of the quarter on “how I got an A in this course.” On the last day of class, have students revisit their original paper and reflect on why they did (or didn’t) actually get an A in the course. This activity can be easily modified to “how I got an A on this exam” or “how I got an A on this project.”

For more practical ideas on how to get students to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning, pick up Linda Nilson’s book Creating Self-Regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-awareness and Learning Skills, which is available for loan through the TLA Library and the DePaul Library.

4. Share research on how learning works.

At the Lilly conference I met Nikki Sawyer, who teaches in the Department of Natural Sciences at Clayton State University in Georgia. Sawyer spends part of one class every term explaining to her anatomy students how the brain forms new memories, as well as the implications of this process for successful study strategies. She reports that this discussion has a major impact on the way her students study and prepare for exams. Her favorite concepts to teach are the role of repetition in forming lasting memories and the effect of sleep on memory function. One caveat about discussing neuroscience research with students: make sure that you’re aware of prevalent neuromyths so that you can address these common misconceptions.

Remember that the social sciences also offer powerful insights about learning. Try sharing with students Carol Dweck’s research on mindset or Claude Steele’s work on stereotype threat.

Zakrajsek presenting at Virginia Tech’s Conference on Higher Education in 2012..

Todd Zakrajsek will present on how to align evidence-based teaching practices with effective evidence-based learning strategies at DePaul’s Teaching and Learning Conference in May 2015.

Interested in knowing more about how learning works? Watch a recording of Dorothy Kozlowski and Sandra Virtue’s Teaching Commons workshop on Neuroscience and Learning. And don’t miss guest speaker Todd Zakrajsek’s keynote and workshop at this year’s Teaching and Learning Conference. Zakrajsek will show you how to align effective evidence-based teaching practices with effective evidence-based learning strategies.

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4 Responses to Four Ways to Incorporate Learning-to-Learn into Any Course

  1. Joe Olivier January 14, 2015 at 1:29 pm #

    Jen, I enjoyed reading your blog post. I really like how you distill four key takeaways from the Lilly Conference and offer additional concrete resources for instructors of all stripes.

    As I was reading takeaway #3–where you ask students to evaluate their own learning–one question came to mind: To what extent do grades represent “durable learning”? The activity asks students to reflect on whether they got an A or not, which makes some sense because receiving good grades is usually what most students care about.

    But it is entirely possible for students to receive As in their coursework and not be learning much, and conversely for those receiving Bs and Cs to be learning more than their straight-A peers.

    So it might also make sense to ask students to reflect on how they will meet or have met the learning outcomes for a course, whatever their grades might be. What do you think?

    • Jen O'Brien January 14, 2015 at 4:03 pm #

      You bring up a great point, Joe! I agree that grades don’t directly measure how much a student learned in class. I love your idea of having students reflect directly on the learning outcomes instead. Thanks for reading!

  2. Toni Fitzpatrick January 14, 2015 at 1:52 pm #

    I really enjoyed this post, Jen! I was at the National Symposium on Student Retention back in November and went to a session on learning to learn. As I work with the Common Hour component of the Chicago Quarter I think this could be a great addition to the curriculum and appreciate the four takeaways you provided here. I think sharing the research on how the brain works could be so powerful, particularly in allowing students to have reasonable expectations for what they can learn in a certain time period. Often students believe “cramming” is the best way to prepare for an exam and then feel discouraged if their cramming session doesn’t result in a good grade. Over time they may begin to doubt their ability to learn or even may question if they are able to succeed in college-level work at all and the research around retention tells us self-efficacy plays a key role in student success.

    We should get together and share conference notes on this topic sometime soon!

    • Jen O'Brien January 14, 2015 at 4:20 pm #

      Thanks for reading, Toni! You’re right that students understandably feel frustrated and even defeated when their study strategies don’t work out. Claude Steele’s research suggests that for individuals experiencing what he calls “stereotype threat,” these feelings of frustration and defeat can be even more intense. The good news is that there are interventions that faculty and staff can use with students to improve their learning strategies and reduce the negative effects of stereotype threat.

      And yes, I’d love to get together to share notes on this!

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