Learning from Saundra Yancy McGuire
To celebrate Black History Month this year, we’re featuring an inspiring Black scientist and educator whose work has influenced the way many university faculty teach and the way many college students learn.
Dr. Saundra Yancy McGuire is the Director Emerita of the Center for Academic Success and retired Assistant Vice Chancellor and Professor of Chemistry at Louisiana State University. Before working at LSU, she taught chemistry for eleven years at Cornell University. Among her many awards, she received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring, presented to her in a White House Oval Office ceremony in 2007, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers in 2014.
Through her work with students and faculty, her books, and her invited talks and workshops, McGuire has helped thousands of faculty teach students to become more effective learners by improving their metacognitive strategies, and she has helped countless students learn to help themselves become more effective learners so that they can accomplish their goals in college and beyond. She also works to encourage and prepare underrepresented minorities and women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. She has spoken or presented workshops at over 400 institutions in 46 states and ten countries.
Based on the popularity of her first book on the subject, Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation, which was a Stylus Publishing bestseller, McGuire also published a students’ version, Teach Yourself How to Learn: Strategies You Can Use to Ace Any Course at Any Level, which we would recommend for any college student.
Below we’ll share some of McGuire’s teaching advice in the form of short excerpts from Teach Students How to Learn on topics of metacognition and motivation. Of course, this is just a sampling. For more, we encourage you and your students to explore her two books or to check out her page on LSU’s website for more information.
It is a basic learning principle that whenever the brain is trying to absorb something new, it tries to relate new information to something it already knows (Gregory & Parry, 2006). If we do not take the time to discover what our students already know and help them relate what they are learning to their prior knowledge, then they cannot learn in the most efficient ways.
At Cornell, I was what you might call a “Heinz 57 Varieties” chemistry instructor. I could explain any concept 57 different ways; I was very patient, always saying to my students, “Let me know if you don’t understand this explanation, and I will say it a different way.” I was convinced that I could figure out some way to explain it that would ensure student understanding.
I now know it is absolutely not about what we say to our students; it’s about what they hear. But we don’t know what they are hearing unless they’re doing the talking. We don’t have to make connections for them; in fact it is much better if we don’t. We can just throw a concept out there, like a ball, and ask, “What does this remind you of that you’ve encountered in your everyday life?” When students hit the ball back, they come up with the most wonderful examples and ideas that give them not only an efficient path to learning and mastery, but also the most efficient path for them.
When students hit the ball back, they are engaging in active learning. Learning experts and researchers have discovered in the past 30-40 years that active learning is much more lasting than passive learning (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Zull, 2002). I had heard the terms active learning and passive learning at Cornell, but I figured it was education jargon. I did not understand the implications for my teaching. Now I know that active learning involves encouraging students to take on a teaching role themselves so that teachers and students become equal partners in the learning process. (pp. 25–26)
When students employ metacognition, they become consciously aware of themselves as problem solvers, which enables them to actively seek solutions to any problems they may encounter, rather than relying on others to tell them what to do or to answer their questions. As they make the transition from being passive learners to proactive learners, students gain the ability to monitor, plan, and control their mental processing. In other words, instead of staggering through a maze, using instinct alone to look for cheese, they become aware that they need to plot a course and search systematically for cheese, keeping track of what works and what doesn’t. Metacognition also gives students the ability to accurately judge how deeply they have learned something, whether they have only a superficial understanding or the ability to widely apply their knowledge. For example, they might begin to ask themselves, “Am I understanding this material or just memorizing it?” When students use metacognition, they become tremendously empowered as learners because they begin to be able to teach themselves. (p. 16)
Usually, a splash of cold water comes after their first test. Some students start to understand they are in trouble while they’re taking the exam, whereas others think that everything is hunky-dory until they get the exam back with D or F at the top.
When their work is returned to them with a much lower grade than expected, most students cannot process the cognitive dissonance. If our courses are telling these students that they’re not the smart, competent individuals they believed themselves to be, what do they do? Their normal psychological self-defense mechanisms activate. They begin withdrawing psychologically; they might sit further back in the classroom or lecture hall; worse, they might start missing class. Then their performance on the next test is worse than their performance on the first. The downward spiral continues until they’ve flunked the course or barely passed it.
Clearly, students like these are not able to accurately judge their own learning. And the discouragement of thwarted expectations prevents them from working harder. Moreover, even if they are able to rally and work harder, doing more of what they already know how to do is not likely to help. They need to learn a different way. When students learn about metacognition and implement metacognitive strategies, their performance turns around. (pp. 17–18)
Why is it our responsibility to motivate students? Shouldn’t they show up on campus already motivated to learn?
As faculty, we must concern ourselves with student motivation because it so directly affects student learning. Consider Figure 7 .1, a cycle involving motivation, learning, performance, and emotion. When students are motivated, they work hard to learn effectively, and as a result they perform well and feel good about themselves. To sustain this good feeling, students become motivated to continue putting in the effort to keep the cycle going. (p. 73)
Attribution is a social psychology term that describes how we explain to ourselves the things we observe or experience. For example, when some students are asked why they received a low grade on an assignment or exam, they might give answers like, “It was too hard,” “The things I studied weren’t on the test,” “The professor didn’t like my topic,” or “I wasn’t smart enough to do better.” Conversely, when these students are asked why they did well on a test or project, they might say, “I got lucky with the questions,” or “The teacher gave everybody an A or a B.” Whether they do well or badly, these students are attributing their results to factors they cannot control. These kinds of attributions are demotivating because the students feel subjected to the whims of fate. Another cohort of students might explain their results differently. If asked why they performed poorly, they might say, “I didn’t study hard enough,” “I didn’t really pay attention in class,” or “I was distracted by extracurricular activities the week before the due date.” If asked why they performed well, these students might respond, “I worked my behind off for this test,” “I used specific strategies to nail the material,” or “I spent almost every afternoon in office hours or with the teaching assistant.” Point out to your students that when they explain their successes or failures by blaming others or denigrating their abilities, they will be much less motivated to take action than if they account for their performance by looking at their own effort and actions. (p. 85)
The assumption underlying all of these strategies is that you will explicitly, authentically, and regularly express your belief in your students’ capabilities. I cannot underscore this point enough, partly because I know firsthand how difficult it is to grasp its importance. I had always thought students needed to bring their own motivation to a learning task in order to succeed. But I have been bowled over by the number of students who, when we first met, were completely unwilling to work, but who—as soon as I expressed support and belief in their abilities—became willing to do enormous amounts of work. I am not asking you to be a Pollyanna. In fact, research suggests that well-intentioned but badly aimed positivity or encouragement can have the opposite effect on student learning (Aguilar et al., 2014). But I am asking you to believe that your students are capable of feats of academic superheroism. (pp. 80–81)