What Do Students Need to Learn About Learning?

mhGtM2sIf I could change one thing about the education system, particularly the pre-university and professional college system in which I work, it would be this:

Students would learn a lot more about learning.

I have a fantasy in which I go back to school to do a doctorate in educational psychology, and then I overhaul the college curriculum to introduce mandatory courses in Applied Learning Sciences. These would be kind of like intense, intellectually challenging Study Skills courses, in which students would learn…well, how to be students. They would study the learning brain. They would be exposed to different theories about knowing and metacognition. They would also read and discuss educational philosophy – what is school for? What does “learning” really mean? And they would apply this knowledge to everything from keeping an agenda that would actually help them to reading effectively to managing exam anxiety.

If you were designing such a course, what would you include? What do you think students need to learn in order to be good at learning, not just when they are in school but for the rest of their lives?

Image by sanja gjenero


25 thoughts on “What Do Students Need to Learn About Learning?

  1. I think organization and time management plays a big role in how a student learns. Organization in their mind and how they remember things. Being able to relate thoughts and concepts to other concrete concepts for retention. Also organization of their supplies and notes. I know you are looking at more of a college level, but I think these skills are necessary and should be taught at an elementary level. By the time they get to college, these skills should be ingrained and come second hand to them to ensure success. I work at a middle school, and I can tell you the level of organization has declined from when I was a child. Many of the students seem scattered and do not remember things because they don’t know how to organize the information they are receiving. I have always wondered why there has been a decline. Is it parents are too busy trying to provide for their families to meet the needs of their children? Not necessarily on a material level, but on an emotional and mental level. Or does it stem from teachers? Are they not stressing the importance of basic learning skills and to focused on the material that needs to be taught? I know by the time I was in college, I had friends who never thought it was important to show up to class, much less take notes during lecture. Why pay all that money to not put forth full effort? I think this idea for a course would be great! This would be perfect for freshman college students.

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    1. Mizzy: I totally agree that some version of this curriculum should begin when students are in primary school. Most of us spend a minimum of 15 years in school; why do we spend no time at all learning about learning? And I agree that organization is key. A few years ago, I had a very good student who visited my office at the end of the semester. I asked him if he was feeling overwhelmed by all his end-of-term work, and he said, “I don’t get overwhelmed. I make lists.” I frequently tell my students this story. If you can keep track of your tasks, your notes, your supplies and your time, you can do almost anything.

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  2. I totally agree with you! At the beginning of each school year I ask my senior level high school students how they know if they’ve learned something, and it’s amazing how many blank stares I get! If there was something I’d include in a course on learning it is about the importance of failure; HOWEVER, I would go beyond talking about it, I would want each student to experience failure in some way. It is really difficult to take risks – both in the classroom and in life – if you are unwilling or unable to properly deal with failure. I think many people understand failure at an intellectual level, but until you has gone through it personally, it’s hard to know how you will react to it.

    After years of talking about failure to my students, I had my first really intense encounter with it while I was in a masters program. It was in my ‘dark night’ that I realized how terrible it feels to fail. However, the learning that came out of it was profound and it changed who I am as a person and as a professional. I’ve found that talking practically about failure and letting my students know that I expect them to fail in their journey or learning really deflates the horror of failure on the one hand and empowers them on the other.

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    1. Altitude: I am with you on this; the ability to face and learn from failure is supremely important, and the inability to do so is at the root of so much that is wrong with school. A colleague I respect once told me that when she hands back her students’ first tests, she writes “WE ARE FAILURE MACHINES” on the board, and they discuss this. I should really do that too.
      You might be interested in this post I wrote a few years ago, a personal classroom reflection on Paul Tough’s thoughts on failure: https://siobhancurious.com/2011/09/26/fail-better/

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  3. I don’t have enough brain power to provide an in-depth response like the others, but I am highly in favour of a course where students learn about their own learning process. When i took Performa courses, I realized that so many of us who were able to do well in school did so because we managed to learn about and monitor our own learning. I’m convinced that it’s something that can be actively taught to folks who, for one reason or another, don’t manage to pick up on it on their own.

    I like to talk to my students about pedagogy and metacognition. When I give them work to do, I often take a few minutes to explain the pedagogical approach behind it or how they can use the exercise in question to understand and monitor their own learning process. It seems to get their attention. I find this all easier to do in project-based courses, though, since talking about study and work skills seems to come up as part of the process more organically. It makes me very happy when I hear from former students who have gone on to university and who say that those skills come in handy later on.


    1. Jacky: your comment that “so many of us who were able to do well in school did so because we managed to learn about and monitor our own learning” really made me stop and think. I can’t quite decide whether that was true for me or not. Learning was generally super easy for me, so when I came up against obstacles, I wasn’t equipped to face them. When a subject was difficult for me I had no skills for tackling it, and so often did poorly – in some cases, I still believe that teachers awarded me Bs in courses that I really earned Ds in, purely based on my reputation as a good student! When I got to university, I had little grit and less patience, and coasted by on good listening skills and general intellectual curiosity. I wonder how much I might have achieved if I’d developed a stronger general work ethic, and a set of conscious cognitive tools, instead of investing all my energy in only the things I cared about.


      1. Of course…I imagine this isn’t the case for everyone. School was an escape for me from the nonsense that was going on at home, so everything about learning was interesting to me. Now did I put conscious thought into how I learned? Not really. But when I learned more about learning in the Performa courses, a lot of what I learned, particularly about metacognition, felt intuitively familiar.


  4. I loved reading your blog today as well as all the comments. Being a much older student of everything I can possibly learn I often wish I had better skills in this area. If I have to learn something I immediately become overwhelmed and make it very complicated in my mind, if I learn something out of pure curiosity and love of the subject I am fine. The skills you are discussing would have helped tremendously all through my life. I come from a generation who were taught to learn the basics, not question anything and with great fear of failure. Maybe others didn’t feel that way, but I did. Just imagine having a course on how to learn and how to deal with failure in a constructive way. I would have been in heaven.


    1. Trudy: I sometimes give students mini-lessons on things like different Ways of Knowing (“absolute” knowing, where we believe there is a simple right answer the teacher should deliver to us, vs. “analytical” knowing, where we develop our own conclusions based on evidence), and there are always a few faces that light up – it changes the way they look at their own learning processes. Also key: the belief that intelligence is not static but changeable. It’s not clear whether this is true or not, but it IS clear that when people believe it’s true, they learn better!


  5. Time management is so huge, especially when failing at it means a build-up of stress and anxiety–nobody learns well when they’re stressed. I would teach that paying attention to your body and what it needs is just as important as paying attention in class.


    1. Steph: I agree. In fact, I think mindfulness meditation would be an important component of such a course: spending at least a few minutes a day trying to inhabit the body with full awareness.


      1. Absolutely! In the words of a favorite anime: “To train the mind you must first train the body.” The mind isn’t so detached as the ghost-in-the-machine crowd would like to believe, I find.


  6. Reading effectively! This week I am writing a paper on reading, specifically comprehension and what the ideal reader does as they read a text. And in the back of my mind, I wonder why our education system doesn’t address more of the reading process and HOW a reader reads with our students. Too often I see basal readers that ask readers to complete specific tasks with regard to the text, ignoring the higher-order reading comprehension and emphasizing literal comprehension. I understand that literal comprehension is necessary, but we also need to teach the higher order comprehension and the variety of methods that students can employ when reading a text. Wouldn’t students benefit from learning about the reading process? How reading a text in a science class is different from the novel they read on the weekend or the short story they read and analyze for an English class? Understanding the strategies available and how to employ them as they read?


    1. Tara: I agree that the whole process of reading is one we really need to address with our students. One aspect of that I try to tackle is the difference you point out: between reading literature and other kinds of texts. At the base: WHY do we read things like novels and poetry in school? Beyond fun, what does reading literature do for us intellectually and personally and neurologically?

      If we could walk students through the various kinds of reading and what happens in our brains when we do them, I think students would be far more onside when it comes to reading for English class.


  7. I have designed and taught just such a course, but at the college level, not the high school level. I’ve only taught it a couple of times and it’s been a smash hit. I wrote a quick reflection on my first go of it here, back in 2013 just as the first section was winding down: http://cognitioneducation.me/2013/01/22/a-little-story-about-learning-about-learning-while-learning/. In short, I did just what you envision: we covered some basics of cognitive psychology, motivational psychology, and learning sciences. I measured students own motivation and meta-cognition at the start and end of class too, and found in both sections students’ scores improved. Year’s later, students still remark on how great the class was, and on how they wish that they’d either taken the class in high school, or instead of the required first-year seminar all frosh take at my university.

    Given the success of my “Psych of Studying” class (that’s what I call it) I’ve begun to modifying other courses as I can to add in elements that fit with the content and course aims. Students respond really well to it, and over and over again comment on how they wish they could have known sooner how to improve their studying and classroom engagement. It’s really rewarding to know that I’ve helped my students become better students in general, and not just conveyed to them more knowledge.

    My dream is to redesign teacher education certification programs so that the bulk of what pre-service teachers learn is such material. In my experience, education students who find their way into my classes (child development, cognitive psychology, psych of studying, educational psych) are blown away by how little they learn in their “education” classes about knowledge and learning. That, to me, is frightening.

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  8. Another thing students need to know, or rather understand for themselves, is how to really think critically about popular notions like “learning styles.” In the context again of my Psych of Studying class, in a reflection on how the second section of my class went (http://cognitioneducation.me/2014/01/18/embracing-embodiment/), I tackled learning styles (actually I’ve written several posts on the faulty logic behind the learning styles craze) and offered up an alternative, that I call in the post “embodiment.” The main point is that when you believe you only learn well in one way, you stymie your motivation and you limit the depth that you can learn, to boot. Opening up to the power of creating “multiple routes in” despite your preference for one (e.g., “visual vs auditory” becomes “visual + auditory”) enables students to add depth to their learning, too.

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