The Key to Learning: Knowing How Learning Works

By  for the TIME Ideas blog.

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,  ”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. 

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 leads to improved learning outcomes, writes lead author Helen Askell-Williams of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. 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 (American students score right 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.

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.

• 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?

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.

This article is from the Brilliant Report, a weekly newsletter written by Annie Murphy Paul.

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