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Teaching Secrets: Teaching Students How to Learn

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Great teachers not only have a firm grasp of content but are also adept at helping diverse learners master those concepts and skills. It can be a lot to manage, and new teachers sometimes lose sight of another important aspect of our roles: guiding students to become responsible for their own learning.

Even veteran teachers sometimes tell students to "take notes" or to "study" without ever sharing strategies for doing so. Modeling techniques for reading, note-taking, and studying can take time, but it is a worthwhile investment. By encouraging students to be intentional in their learning, you can equip them with the tools they need to be successful in your own classroom and in the future.

Awareness of common pitfalls and effective strategies can support your efforts to help students "learn to learn" throughout the school year:

Pitfall #1: Assuming students will be able to identify important information and take useful notes. Note-taking activities can be fraught with problems, particularly if the text is above the student’s reading level. Often students start writing immediately, taking wild guesses about what might matter. They blindly gather bits and pieces without a sense of how the facts relate to one another.

Avoiding the Pitfall: Work with students to demonstrate effective reading and note-taking strategies. Read selections aloud. Model (and have students discuss) how to select information that is worthy of inclusion in notes. Demonstrate techniques like previewing the reading, examining bold words and headings, putting main ideas in your own words, and being attentive to captions.

Explore different styles of note-taking, and discuss how to match note-taking styles with the content covered. For example, help students learn to recognize when it might be appropriate to use a Venn diagram to compare and contrast two topics, or when an outline’s hierarchical structure will help organize the study of chronological events. Introduce a range of note-taking tools (including highlighters, sticky notes, and index cards) that meet the varied needs of all learners. Practice taking notes as a group, engaging students in discussion about what is important and how to record it.

Pitfall #2: Assuming students know how to "study." The truth is that many students do not know how to go about learning material on their own.

Avoiding the Pitfall: Once students have learned to read carefully and take meaningful notes, you can guide them in using those tools to study effectively.

Set aside small chunks of class time each day to intentionally teach students about strategies for studying. Demonstrate that repetition is critical to retaining new material. Introduce different ways of using their notes: quizzing themselves with note cards, playing review games, and creating test questions for one another. Practice vocabulary together every day. Work on creating mnemonics to remember difficult sequences. Help students realize that learning is a process, not a night-before-the-test memorization activity.

Pitfall #3—Assuming students understand the link between studying and academic performance. Students who have never learned to identify important ideas, take useful notes, and study effectively may not "believe in" studying to enhance their academic performance. They may even assume that higher-performing students are "just smarter."

Avoiding the Pitfall: Set the stage to show students the dividends they will reap from their efforts. As you guide students in learning to take notes and study effectively, give them opportunities to evaluate and reflect on these techniques.

Ask students to set learning goals for their unit (perhaps based on pretests, if you use them). Regularly review those learning goals and have students reflect on their own progress. Prod students to discover what they still need to accomplish in order to be successful. As you monitor individual students' progress, make adjustments in your instruction and help them plan how to meet their own learning needs.

After the unit test or other assessment, have students reflect on their own progress from the initial pretest to the final product. How did the process of studying lead them to success? Which study tools do they find most useful? In what areas do they need to find new tools to help them learn? Asking students to think about how they learn (and to make adjustments accordingly) will help them feel more in control of their own academic progress.

As you work through the process together over the course of the school year, "learning to learn" will become quicker and more automatic for students. And you will have shared a valuable gift with them: the ability to encounter, organize, and internalize new concepts in their academic and professional lives.

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