November 15th, 2010

Teaching Strategies That Help Students Learn How to Learn


What skills do you wish your students had prior to taking your course? Reading comprehension, time management, listening, note-taking, critical thinking, test-taking? Let’s face it, most students could benefit from taking a course in learning how to learn. But who wants to take a study skills class?

My solution: sneak study skills into your class along with the content.

Course structure:

  • Select a textbook that has learning aids (study guides, online materials, and/or audio files) and encourage your students to use them.
  • Craft your syllabus carefully. By setting the right tone, you can motivate students.
  • Design clear, meaningful assignments that enable students to accomplish course objectives.
  • Space the workload out evenly throughout the semester.
  • If students don’t master an assignment the first time, give them constructive feedback, and the chance to redo it. You may not want to do this for every assignment, but doing it for one early in the course "sets the bar" and encourages them to do quality work.

The first week:

  • If your class is small, set up interviews with students individually or in pairs to find out why they’re taking the course and what they want to get out of it. Not only will you learn about who’s in the class, but you’ll increase students’ commitment to work hard and communicate with you. If the class is large, use email to collect information about students and to establish connections.
  • Talk to students about how to study for your course. Give them a list of study techniques recommended by students who’ve taken the course and earned A’s.
  • Early in the course, have students use their textbooks in class. By using class time, you acknowledge the book’s value. If you can’t afford class time, have students do a homework assignment that they can’t complete without using the book.
  • Offer students time management suggestions. Let them know approximately how much time they should spend on the course each week. Talk about how daily study keeps the information fresh and helps avoid cramming. Show how longer assignments can be broken into small pieces.

Techniques for teaching:

  • Start class with something that gets their attention and then quickly review what was covered in the previous class.
  • Show students "tricks of the trade," or how you learned the material. Talk aloud when you solve a problem. Show students what you do when you get stuck.
  • Provide a partial outline and have your students fill in the missing material during the lecture.
  • Leave five minutes at the end of each class for students to check their notes with those of their neighbor, review major ideas, and indicate what they thought was important and why.

Testing tips:

  • Assign study groups prior to the first exam, have them exchange contact information, and require a one-hour study session outside of class. Help them be more productive by providing a study guide and/or sample test questions they can submit for bonus points.
  • Give students frequent tests and constructive feedback throughout the course.
  • Give a practice test before the actual exam so students get a feel for the types of questions you ask. If you use essay questions, share an example of an A, C, and F answer.
  • Take class time to go over the first exam. Talk in detail about the questions most often missed.
  • Have students analyze the first exam, or quiz, by writing you a memo that responds to questions like these: Was it harder than expected? Were any of the questions a complete surprise? If so, which ones? Were there any questions you didn’t understand or found confusing? If so, rewrite them using your own words. What one change are you going to make when studying for the next quiz? What study strategy did you use that worked well?

These simple strategies teach students learning skills that will make them better students in every course.

Excerpted from “Teaching Strategies That Help Students Learn,” The Teaching Professor, 23.7 (2009): 1,8.

Sara J. Coffman, Center for Instructional Excellence, Purdue University.