July 26th, 2017

Four Student Misconceptions about Learning


student multitasking when studying

Editor’s Note: Today we’re revisiting an old favorite on how students think about learning.

“Efficient and effective learning starts with a proper mindset,” Stephen Chew writes in his short, readable, and very useful chapter, “Helping Students to Get the Most Out of Studying.” Chew continues, pointing out what most of us know firsthand, students harbor some fairly serious misconceptions that undermine their efforts to learn. He identifies four of them.

  1. Learning is fast – Students think that learning can happen a lot faster than it does. Take, for example, the way many students handle assigned readings. They think they can get what they need out of a chapter with one quick read through (electronic devices at the ready, snacks in hand, and ears flooded with music). Or, they don’t think it’s a problem to wait until the night before the exam and do all the assigned readings at once. “Students must learn that there are no shortcuts to reading comprehension.” (p. 216) Teachers need to design activities that regularly require students to interact with course text materials.
  2. Knowledge is composed of isolated facts – Students who hold this misconception demonstrate it when they memorize definitions. Chew writes about the commonly used student practice of making flash cards with only one term or concept on each card. The approach may enable students to regurgitate the correct definition, but they “never develop a connected understanding or how to reason with and apply concepts.” (p.216) The best way for teachers to correct this misconception is by using test questions that ask students to relate definitions, use definitions to construct arguments, or apply them to some situation.
  3. Being good at a subject is a matter of inborn talent rather than hard work – All of us have had students who tell us with great assurance that they can’t write, can’t do math, are horrible at science, or have no artistic ability. Chew points out that if students hold these beliefs about their abilities, they don’t try as hard in those areas and give up as soon as any difficulty is encountered. Then they have even more evidence about those absent abilities. Students need to bring to learning a “growth mindset,” recognized by statements like this, “Yes, I’m pretty good at math, but that’s because I’ve spend a lot of time doing it.” Teacher feedback can play an important role in helping students develop these growth mindsets.
  4. I’m really good at multi-tasking, especially during class or studying – We’ve been all over this one in the blog. “The evidence is clear: trying to perform multiple tasks at once is virtually never as effective as performing the tasks one at a time focusing completely on each one.” (p. 217) Chew also writes here about “inattentional blindness” which refers to the fact that when our attention is focused on one thing, we aren’t seeing other things. “The problem of not knowing what we missed is that we believe we haven’t missed anything.” (p.217)

Pointing out these misconceptions helps but probably not as much as demonstrations. Students, especially those in the 18-24 age range, don’t always believe what their teachers tell them. The evidence offered by a demonstration is more difficult to ignore.

Please be encouraged to read Chew’s whole chapter (it’s only eight pages). It’s in an impressive new anthology which is reviewed in the February issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter. Briefly here, the book contains 24 chapters highlighting important research on the science of learning. The chapters are highly readable! They describe the research in accessible language and explore the implications of those findings. Very rarely do researchers (and most of these chapters are written by those involved with research) offer implementable suggestions. This book is full of them.

And here’s the most impressive part about this book: you can download it for free. It’s being made available by the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Yes, it’s a discipline-based piece of scholarly work, but as the editors correctly claim it’s a book written for anyone who teaches and cares about learning. Kudos to them for providing such a great resource!

Reference and link: Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (Editors). (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Available at the Teaching of Psychology website: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php

Four Student Misconceptions about Learning was originally published on Jan. 29, 2014 and went on to become one of the popular articles on Faculty Focus that year.

  • David

    Americans are notorious for wanting quick fixes. There are no shortcuts. You have to get an education the old-fashioned way: earn it. You earn it by patient years of studying, writing, doing homework, reading, and attending classes.

    • Matthew

      What does this have to explicitly do with Americans? Plenty of people all over the world have the same issue, including where-ever you are from. This is a general statement about teenagers as a whole, not just Americans. I am a teenager, and perhaps I don't fit the bill, but at least I understand how the world works. If you are so much more intelligent, why are you wasting time insulting us on a teaching forum? I apologize if our crummy leaders have made us look bad, but that's a handful of idiots, not all of us. Stereotypes are for people with a lack of understanding or thirst for fact. American or not it applies.

      • Pamela

        Matthew, I think you are taking the comments personally. Much of how people do anything is influenced by culture AND age. Much of age is influenced by physical and physiological development. There is no insult intended when a learned group of people who have studied the habits and learning styles of other people extensively make an informed observation-which is markedly different than a stereotype. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and a good educator will recognize that in his or her students.

  • Jossie V. de Varona

    Thanks for this helpful reference. I will definitely pass it to my students…..They are always complaining about this and looking for excuses why it is so hard for most of them to learn…particularly what I teach…Mathematics!
    Prof. de Varona UIA METRO Campus

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  • david wendelken

    The difference between someone who is a master at something and a beginner is that the master has failed more times than the beginner has tried.

  • Mitchell Baker

    Dr. Chew has posted a video series on "How to Get the Most Out of Studying." He provides notes and suggestions on how to use the videos in the classroom or as ways to encourage struggling students. http://www.samford.edu/how-to-study/default.aspx .

  • Lynette

    I just went back to school, after graduating from High School…um, over thirty years ago, and I see what this author is trying to show us. You know, as a Mom I see this happening in daily life with my own kids. The quick fix, procrastination at its finest. I cant say that I am immune to it. I find myself, after all these years feeling or sometimes even doing the same thing.

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  • rgillis1973

    What I've learned from this article is basically saying that the easiest and best way to learn each course you have is to study one course at a time. I've learned that the older you get, studying one course at a time verses studying 2 or 3 courses at a time and trying to let the information sink in will mislead your brain on what you are trying to learn. Studying one course at a time, and keeping up with your studies with weekly refresher notes will help you better retain the new information you've just studied.

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  • Matt

    These misconceptions seem to be true for my high school seniors taking Calculus. Calculus often makes use of the entire body of mathematical knowledge learned to this point and applies it in a new context. I find many students lack the prior knowledge and therefore struggle in Calculus. The grading structure in education also adds to these misconceptions and may be another form of misconception in students. Students might get an A in a course but not actually learn anything. I have also had a student comment that learning the material will not help them get a better grade in the class. During class about 4 in 5 questions are about their grade and rather than their struggle in the subject matter. Getting students to think about their learning and these four misconceptions is a great idea and might yield some good results in some students.