Tips for Teaching Students ‘What to Learn’ and ‘How to Learn’ During Lectures

Tips for Teaching Students ‘What to Learn’ and ‘How to Learn’ During Lectures

It was soon after my son enrolled in a local junior college that I realized something was wrong. Success, which seemed to come so easy to him in high school, was suddenly out of reach. In fact, he was failing every course! I quickly learned that in high school he did not have to exert any effort and was taught to simply memorize material.

Sadly, this high school experience resulted in a new high school graduate who had no concept of time management, study skills, or critical thinking (McGuire, 2015). He had no idea how to take responsibility for his own learning, and despite my pleas that he needed to “study differently” in college, he had no idea what this meant or how to go about this task.

As a college instructor, this caused me to deeply reflect on my own teaching practices. I needed to help my own students develop learning skills they never had the opportunity to develop. After all, these students (like my son) were probably very intelligent, but never had the opportunity to develop these skills.

With this in mind, I developed a few strategies that have helped my students learn what to learn and how to learn during my lectures.

Here is my step-by-step sequence of strategies I use during a lecture. The reader will notice that I incorporate many learning strategies into all of my lessons about psychology and I still have plenty of time to teach my psychology content while I teach my students these additional skills.

  1. Preview (Start of new lesson)
    Before I begin lecturing on a new topic, I give students a brief preview. This may involve reading a two or three paragraph study or watching a short video clip about the topic. I like to give the preview at the end of a class. This is important because students need time to process the idea before being expected to learn new material.

  2. Retrieve
    After a preview of the new information, I begin the new class period asking students to retrieve the information from the last period. I then ask students to separate into groups and create a list of everything they know about this new content. This gives them the opportunity to retrieve their prior information about the topic and also converse with peers about information they know about the content (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014). After focusing the class back on me, I make a list on the computer based on the students’ answers.

  3. Lecture and learn
    Once students retrieved their prior information on a topic, I then begin lecturing. Students are now ready to pair up their existing information on a topic with the new information. This will help ensure that learning takes place. In many cases, instructors are quick to throw out new information to students without giving them the opportunity to think about the topic and figure out what they already know about it. Throughout my lecture, I incorporate my students’ lists generated in step 2 to help them make connections and to help them realize that they have a foundation of knowledge concerning this topic. I also try to provide my students with visual representation and show them how the pieces fit together. Once I have lectured over the content, I teach them some basic mnemonic strategies they can use with this new content that will help them learn.

    I also have found that it is imperative that during my lecture I repeat, repeat, and repeat important points. Periodically, I check my students’ understanding and am alert to feedback (facial expressions, verbal, and nonverbal) and am willing to adjust strategies if students are not learning.

  4. Retrieve again
    Another strategy I use during lectures is practicing retrieval. In order to help my students practice retrieval (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014), at the end of the lecture, I ask students to tell me what they know about the topic. In some situations, I ask students to get back into groups and discuss the topic, and in other cases, they simply tell me about the concepts and again, I make a list on the computer for them to see. I have found that pulling up the old list, (the one developed when they first retrieved information on the new topic) and comparing it to the new list, helps them pair up the old information with the new.

  5. Review and repeat
    During my next class session, I open a Word document and pose a question to my students based on the lecture. Of course, my students do not have their book open and are not looking at their old notes. This gives them a glimpse of what they know and do not know. After a few minutes of agony, I suggest to my students that they need to look it up. This gives them opportunity to quickly expose themselves to the material we discussed in our class period (repetition).

A very important component of this process is the explaining to my students why I use these teaching strategies. They need to understand the benefit of these strategies and how the strategies will help them learn in my class and in other courses.

I have asked students about my teaching techniques and I have found they are grateful for them. My students state that they have never had an instructor who teaches like me and despite my persistent questions, they are happy to have the opportunity to “learn how to learn.” I am grateful to my son for opening my eyes and helping me to realize my students are not unmotivated and they are very competent, but as recent high school graduates, they are basically jumping into a deep pool without ever being taught how to swim.


Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

McGuire, S. Y. (2015). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into Any course to improve student metacognition study skills, and motivation. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing.

Tiffany Zielinski Culver is an associate professor of psychology at Sul Ross State University, Uvalde, Texas.