Thinking About Thinking

And Learning About Learning

Few undergraduates arrive at the university with a sophisticated portfolio of study strategies. Students may think learning mostly means memorizing, so they will spend hours going over notes and re-reading (or highlighting every line of) their books. Before they arrive in our classrooms, many of our students have had only limited opportunities to do their own reasoning in a school setting, or to feel the pleasure that comes with figuring out a tough problem or concept.

We will get better work from our students (and they will learn far more effectively) if we help them to learn about how learning works, and to monitor their own learning processes. There are a number of ways we can offer guidance:

  1. Provide resources: Dr. Stephen Chew’s videos on effective studying are very useful (linked here; you can post them on Canvas).
  2. Take time to explain why we assign work. How will doing each assignment help students learn? What kinds of thinking do they need to be practicing and improving? These may seem so obvious to us that we forget to explain them, but students will benefit from hearing the rationale. It’s difficult for students to assess their own progress when the tasks we’re asking them to perform are mystified, so we will need to identify our own expert blind spots and unbundle our thinking. Transparent assignments help students manage their projects by clearly defining the purpose, task, and criteria for evaluation. (A template is available here).
  3. Help them recognize the big picture. Novice learners in any domain may have difficulty distinguishing overarching concepts from minutiae. We need to help students make connections as they’re building their knowledge structures. One simple strategy to help them start making sense of what they’re learning is to have students list the three most important points from the day, just before they leave class. At first you may be dismayed by the gap between what you consider most important and what your students are writing down, but if you make a habit of requiring them to reflect on the lesson and then sharing your own perspective, over time your perceptions of the bigger picture and theirs should begin to line up (and you’ll also have great feedback on how you’re spending your class time, and how well it’s aligned with your goals). It’s also very important that we test and quiz on the most important concepts, rather than the details, since students will remember what they’re asked to retrieve.
  4. Prompt students to practice metacognition and self-regulation. Minute papers, think-pair-shares, reflective questions, and exam or assignment wrappers are quick tools for encouraging students to think about their learning. (Here are more suggestions.)
  5. Think aloud. Sharing your own thought processes—making your thinking “visible” for students—is a terrific form of modeling. Explaining what you see when you approach a problem or a question or an example, how you arrive at conclusions, what counts as evidence, or how you learned to perform various reasoning maneuvers will help them understand how an expert thinks and solves problems. Articulating all this may also help to slow you down, since these processes have probably become automatic. If you normalize thinking aloud, and examining your own thinking, it will be easier for students to follow suit when you ask them to talk through their reasoning.

These strategies don’t have to take up much, or any, of your class time, but they’re worth the investment of a few moments. Your students will learn more deeply, and remember more, so that they’ll be better prepared for the next course, or challenges down the road.