Lesson 6 of 7
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Applying the concepts to your context

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The primary challenge that educators face when it comes to teaching students, how to learn it’s that there’s already so much content in the course. I don’t know a single person who would tell you that they don’t have enough content. What I will hear over and over is “I don’t have time to get through the things I have”. So the question becomes if I don’t have time to get through the content, how do I have time to teach students how to learn? Well, the answer actually becomes a whole area of efficiency.

You see, if students become more efficient and become better learners, you’ll be able to get through certain material faster. In fact, some of the things can be offloaded on for the students to learn outside of class because they’ll know the material better. So what we have to do is realise that efficient learners are faster learners. And by doing that, they’ll free up some more times. So we don’t need to worry about that content quite so much.

I have a friend, Kathy Nabours, who’s at Riverside community college in the United States. And she started teaching her students how to learn in a developmental math course. Now developmental math courses tend to have huge dropout rates. The students very much struggle in the United States on developmental math courses. So she started taking five minutes of class time, which are precious five minutes and teaching students just a little bit. She would say, for instance, read this material I sent you on sleep and it would be material that would maybe take 10 minutes to read. Then in class, she would say for the first five minutes, how did the reading go for you? What did you learn about sleep? What can you use about sleep? And at the end of the five minutes, she’d say, okay, we’re back to fractions. What she found was after doing that at the end of the course, 19% less students flunked out of the course than it was traditionally the number of people flunked. That’s 19% more students persisting and going on, by the way, she also found that in the next math course where this was not taught 24% increase in passing. Which means this has what’s called “downstream effect”.

We teach now and it just keeps helping down the line. The other basic frustration or challenge is that faculty will think, I shouldn’t have to teach students this stuff. They should just know it. Well, we can spend our whole life with what should be, but the fact is it’s not. They haven’t learned how to read. They haven’t learned how to study. They haven’t learned many of the cognitive processes that we do in our class. We’re good at it. It’s what we do. So we should help them. Our job used to be about content, but it’s not that way anymore. When I first started teaching in 1980s before the internet, the whole role of my job was to get the information across. Now, the students can find it information. My job is to guide them through what’s important and how to get through it. That’s why I teach them how to learn.

The most common challenge is the amount of content most courses must cover.  When it is already challenging to introduce a large quantity of material to students, spending valuable class time teaching about the learning process can feel like more work. To address this, it is important to point out the gains in efficiency when students learn better systems for learning.  One can spend less time in class doing things because students outside of class can learn more quickly.   

Another challenge is that faculty feel they have little to no control over how students’ study, the amount of sleep (or exercise) students get or how they process information.  It turns out that these are very easy areas to overcome. Using sleep as an example: Yes, I can’t make students sleep, but then again, I can’t make students do anything. I can tell students if they study regularly, they will do better on tests. I can tell students that if they pay attention in class, they will learn the material more quickly. I can’t make them study and I can’t make them pay attention, but I can share the impact based on experience and evidence. In this same way I can point out that those who get a good night of sleep will learn faster and more efficiently than those who do not. 


At what point in your course can you make time to teach students how to learn? Are there other parts of your course content you could deprioritise to make more space for talking to students about the learning process?

Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.