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.
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.
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.”
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.