September 29th, 2009

Student Attitudes about Learning


In the process of preparing an article for the newsletter, I came across this observation: “Students who have the impression that nothing they do will alter the results of the learning process, or who attribute success to good luck and failure to bad luck, or who see the pedagogy and didactic practice of the professor as the sole determinant of success or failure, will make little effort to contribute to their own learning.” (p. 244)

It is important for us to remember that what students believe about learning and themselves as learners plays a key role in determining their success as learners. Research evidence is very clear on this issue. If a student believes that no matter what they do, they won’t succeed in a course, even being in a course with a highly rated effective teacher does not change the effects of those beliefs.

Because their beliefs matter so much, we must show students that their efforts do make a difference and explain why we propose they use certain strategies. I don’t think we’re always as diligent about this as we should be. A lot of times when we use a learning strategy, whether it’s concept maps, a reading preparation assignment, or a think-pair-share activity, we don’t explain to students why we’ve chosen this strategy. We don’t tell them that research has shown that when college students taking courses like theirs used this strategy, it improved their performance in the course or it developed necessary learning skills like critical thinking and problem solving.

If you think you already do this or think that the value of a particular strategy is self evident, I would encourage you to ask students. After they’ve worked together in a group on some project, ask, “Why do teachers have students work together in groups?” The first time I asked that question, the first answer I got was, “Because they don’t want to teach that day.” If that’s why students think I have them working on projects in groups, then I need to discuss the educational rationale behind my decision to use groups. It most certainly is not about a day off for the teacher.

Most faculty don’t know as much as they should about learning, but most students know even less. Even without that knowledge, students still have beliefs about their abilities as learners, and those beliefs affect their motivation to learn and the success of their efforts. We can help students by changing what they know about learning and by showing them how the strategies we propose do help them learn.

Reference: Morse, D. and Jutras, F. (2008). Implementing concept-based learning in a large undergraduate classroom. Cell Biology Education, 7 (Summer), 243-253.