How Much Do You Know About How To Learn?

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What’s the key to effective learning? One intriguing body of research suggests a rather riddle-like answer: It’s not just what you know. It’s what you know about what you know.

To put it in more straightforward terms, anytime a student learns, he or she has to bring in two kinds of prior knowledge: knowledge about the subject at hand (say, mathematics or history) and knowledge about how learning works. Parents and educators are pretty good at imparting the first kind of knowledge. We’re comfortable talking about concrete information: names, dates, numbers, facts. But the guidance we offer on the act of learning itself—the “metacognitive” aspects of learning—is more hit-or-miss, and it shows.

In our schools, “the emphasis is on what students need to learn, whereas little emphasis—if any—is placed on training students how they should go about learning the content and what skills will promote efficient studying to support robust learning,” writes John Dunlosky, professor of psychology at Kent State University in Ohio, in an article just published in American Educator. However, he continues, “teaching students how to learn is as important as teaching them content, because acquiring both the right learning strategies and background knowledge is important—if not essential—for promoting lifelong learning.”

Research has found that students vary widely in what they know about how to learn, according to a team of educational researchers from Australia writing last year in the journal Instructional Science. Most striking, low-achieving students show “substantial deficits” in their awareness of the cognitive and metacognitive strategies that lead to effective learning—suggesting that these students’ struggles may be due in part to a gap in their knowledge about how learning works.

Teaching students good learning strategies would ensure that they know how to acquire new knowledge, which leads to improved learning outcomes, writes lead author Helen Askell-Williams of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. And studies bear this out. Askell-Williams cites as one example a recent finding by PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, which administers academic proficiency tests to students around the globe, and place American students in the mediocre middle. “Students who use appropriate strategies to understand and remember what they read, such as underlining important parts of the texts or discussing what they read with other people, perform at least 73 points higher in the PISA assessment—that is, one full proficiency level or nearly two full school years—than students who use these strategies the least,” the PISA report reads.

In their own study, Askell-Williams and her coauthors took as their subjects 1,388 Australian high school students. They first administered an assessment to find out how much the students knew about cognitive and metacognitive learning strategies—and found that their familiarity with these tactics was “less than optimal.”

Students can assess their own awareness by asking themselves which of the following learning strategies they regularly use (the response to each item is ideally “yes”):
• I draw pictures or diagrams to help me understand this subject.
• I make up questions that I try to answer about this subject.
• When I am learning something new in this subject, I think back to what I already know about it.
• I discuss what I am doing in this subject with others.
• I practice things over and over until I know them well in this subject.
• I think about my thinking, to check if I understand the ideas in this subject.
• When I don’t understand something in this subject I go back over it again.
• I make a note of things that I don’t understand very well in this subject, so that I can follow them up.
• When I have finished an activity in this subject I look back to see how well I did.
• I organize my time to manage my learning in this subject.
• I make plans for how to do the activities in this subject.

Askell-Williams and her colleagues found that those students who used fewer of these strategies reported more difficulty coping with their schoolwork. For the second part of their study, they designed a series of proactive questions for teachers to drop into the lesson on a “just-in-time” basis—at the moments when students could use the prompting most. These questions, too, can be adopted by any parent or educator to make sure that children know not just what is to be learned, but how.
• What is the topic for today’s lesson?
• What will be important ideas in today’s lesson?
• What do you already know about this topic?
• What can you relate this to?
• What will you do to remember the key ideas?
• Is there anything about this topic you don’t understand, or are not clear about?

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5 Responses to “How Much Do You Know About How To Learn?”

  1. Julie Wilson says:

    Bravo! Having spent an entire year piloting the http://www.iStudyforSuccess.com Study Skills Curriculum, this article sums up exactly what we are presenting to students in our sessions! Offering everything from Organization, Time Management, and Goal Setting to Making Connections, Asking Questions,and Note Taking, the program gives students the opportunity to work with several types of reading and learning strategies – engaging and motivating them along the way! Great article Annie!

  2. Deborah Owen says:

    This is a key point in learning! I have been observing this myself over the last few years, and am beginning to try to find ways to help teacher address these issues. Students simply MUST learn how to learn. I think this is a problem with adult learners too, especially those who would like to change careers, or who have been laid off recently, or are just getting back into the workforce after being out for a while (such as to raise children). There is so much content to “cover” that teachers generally don’t think about the “how” as much as the “what”. As Simon Sinek would point out, we actually need to start with the “why”, and THEN go to the “how”. Jumping right to “what” misses both of these other important aspects.

    Thanks for this great article!

  3. Yes, we need to build up three things to accomplish how to learn more effectively. 1. The first is the vital need to create a lower average stress. Yes, stress is really made up of layers of mental frictions that take up real mental energy. This not only decreases our leftover mental energy to think and learn, it also limits by it remaining energy our length of reflection time. It hurts reflection time in two ways. The average stress feeds into more improper pace and intensity in approaching mental work, rushing more ideas together without proper time of reflection. It also limits the amount of mental energy to organize and use both the present knowledge and our many parts of past knowledge efficiently. We need to model the good, stable aspects of learning with some training to younger students and teach the cognitive skills of more permanently lowering average stress (not relaxation as it does not work) but lowering layers by resolution and change in faulty weights and values of elements.
    2. For students with lower average stress, the dynamics of pace comes more naturally as there is less feedoff from their average stress. For students in lower socioeconomic environments there is much higher average stress and so much more feedoff into improper pace and intensity, hurting reflection time. For this we need to teach and allow adequate “time” for slowing pace when approaching newer mental work. This needs to be taught as a skill to be used both at school and at home.
    3. Our knowledge and skills of reflecting needs to be taught by parents, teachers, and others. This involves the proper dynamics of approaching mental work more correctly or more slowly at first. For students from more stable, knowledge rich homes this is more easily achieved. For all students, they need to be taught through general education how go slow down for newer mental work. They need to have lessons on taking “time” to learn how to “slowly” draw upon previous knowledge. They need to be taught in all forms of learning more reflection in their work both from the teacher and also time alloted for this. For boys especially in writing where average stress is much higher, they need to be reinforced for relaxing grip on pencil and not pressing down as hard.

  4. It’s great to see attention devoted to metacognition–a very underrated learning theory in my opinion. A friend of mine did her doctoral thesis on it and taught me a lot about it. In the career realm, apparently there is a lot of evidence that it just doesn’t occur to most people to think about how Past Experience A connects to Present Situation B–even when one’s past job experiences seem to be readily tranferable. The good news is that most learners are quite capable of making these connections with some prompting and coaching.

    I also saw the great learning theorist Jerome Bruner touch on this when giving a lecture years ago. He talked about visiting a classroom in inner-city Oakland, where they replaced the usual curriculum and instead taught the kids all subjects based on the real-world information of the Exxon Valdez disaster. The idea was to give all reading, math, and science true relevance. But he especially loved the fact that these kids (grade 7 or 8) also had some time each week to reflect on the learning itself. What had worked well that week to help them learn? What seemed to be less effective? This last piece was a nice metacognitive approach–getting the kids to think about how they know what they know. Cool stuff.

  5. Beverly Miles says:

    This is an excellent article discussing the important concepts I have learned while gaining my Master’s degree in Educational Psychology through Capella University. The only addition to this article that would make it more noteworthy would be to include the citations and reference list from the sources cited in the article and to include the qualifications of the author as part of the introduction to the actual article. If you could email this information I can use this site as a reference when writing papers or using this as reference when I talk with others.

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