Students who’ve tried to learn a new concept or skill and have been unsuccessful often complain they’re not capable of learning what we ask. Their observations may be couched in statements, such as “I am just not good at…”— insert math, science, or another discipline. Or “My mother wasn’t good at learning this, so there’s no point in trying.”
These observations reflect symptoms of students who experience low levels of academic self-efficacy. Their perception is that trying to learn something and not being successful proves their inability to learn. Yet, the cause is more likely to be an ineffective strategy, an unproductive effort, or a failure to make full use of resources that would assist the student in the learning process.
Left unaddressed, these students may go through much of their lives believing they lack ability when what they lack are correct tools for learning support. Efficacious learners understand that when they attempt new learning and are unsuccessful, they likely can change the outcome by employing three key learning tools: strategy, effort, and resources.
We can help students become more effective learners by coaching them to review the strategy they’re using and consider more worthwhile alternatives. We can explore with learners the nature of the effort they’re giving and how other approaches might be more successful. Finally, we can direct the attention of students toward available resources that might be helpful to their understanding and support their learning.
Our discussion with students about learning strategies might include examples, such as:
- Reading new content and taking notes for later review.
- Listening to new content while simultaneously reading it.
- Focusing on the big picture or general concept and then sorting details and exploring implications and applications.
- Breaking down content or skills into parts and focusing on sections.
- Self-testing occasionally to confirm and consolidate understanding.
- Looking for connections with what has been previously learned.
- Creating pictures or graphs to understand connections and relationships.
- Explaining new content to others as it is learned.
Our coaching to subsidize essential forms of learning practices might encompass:
- Sustaining extended periods of focus and persistence.
- Giving intermittent focus followed by brief breaks for reflection.
- Engaging in intense study followed by other, unrelated activities, and returning later to refresh and extend learning.
- Spacing practice over multiple days to build recall.
- Shifting physical locations while studying to employ context to assist memory.
- Scheduling study sessions during optimal times of the day when energy levels are highest.
Our encouragement for students to use resources available to them could include:
- Consulting fellow students who’ve already learned the content or skill for explanation and learning hints.
- Watching online videos that provide explanation and practice opportunities.
- Reviewing varied text explanations that provide different perspectives.
- Exploring graphic representations of content or skills.
- Reviewing and reflecting on examples of applications for new learning.
The oft-repeated teacher admonition for students to “try three before me” takes on new dimensions when students realize they have access to a wide array of tools to support their learning. By accessing effective strategies, employing smart effort, and tapping available resources, students can overcome most learning barriers and succeed with difficult learning challenges.