Training to Learn

From the standpoint of learning and brain plasticity, the summer has been a long one. Chances are most of your students were not working jobs that continued their practice of study, reading, writing and being tested on mastery. It might be a great idea to find out what your students were up to over the summer and to talk a bit about the process of training-to-learn.

They are probably out of practice with college-type learning. The process of learning is itself a learned skill. We get better at it with practice. I think our students will become better learners if they understand their own processes of learning.

Find out how your students’ learning styles. Visual? Auditory? Tactile? Some of each? They might not have thought about their educational history that way. Make it explicit. Try to introduce some of these styles through assignments and class activities.

Like anything we learn to do….there are strategies that work and those that don’t.

For example, I need to write things down to remember them (tactile, visual). But, it’s not just blind writing. I need to be paying attention to the craft of the writing I am doing. If I just take notes in class or in a seminar, I don’t remember much about it later. What I have to do is re-write, even draw a little diagram, to remember. Even better is for me to tell someone what I just learned, while writing it (like on a chalkboard). THEN I remember it. I’ve learned it. That’s a mixture of auditory, tactile and visual learning. (So, in a way, I have to work really hard to learn things by involving all my senses at once!)

By the same token, there are some learning techniques that just don’t work for me. Highlighting while reading is an utter waste of time for me.  I can’t seem to prevent myself from actually skipping past anything that is highlighted the next time I look at a passage I read earlier. So, for me, I should highlight all the stuff I don’t want to remember. What works better for me is to make little notes in the margins. I do look at those again and the passage of text next to the note.

Here is a useful graphic, when talking with your students about learning styles. I would guess that each individual’s pyramid is different, but this way of visualizing different ways of studying might help your students reflect on their own learning process in different situations.

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I didn’t understand my own learning styles until I was a junior in college. Once I did though, I completely changed the way I studied. I sure wish I had known all this earlier in my college career.

I think it’s a good idea to explicitly address study and learning strategies with our students, particularly freshmen and sophomores. Help them see that when they are preparing for class and sitting in class, they are in training. Training to learn material and training to learn how to learn.

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With time, not only will they get better at learning, but they also get better at working with the kinds of material you have assigned. Like really complex articles written in your field’s jargon. Or, complex multi-step problems to solve. Or, planning experiments. Or using the field’s vocabulary with fluency and comprehension.

Have you ever had this experience? You start reading a play by William Shakespeare. At first, it’s really tough going understanding the archaic language and the poetic style. But, after a while, you find that it’s easier and by the end of the play, you are probably reading it more like a novel (a beach novel even?). What happened? Sure, part of it is you “got into” the plot and it drew you along. But, part of it is you trained your brain, through the practice and persistence, to handle the language and style of the Shakespearean play.

The training wears off, just like you get out of shape when you stop exercising for a couple of weeks.

Our students go through this, too. They get out of shape for studying and for learning. They need to re-train at the beginning of each semester. Seniors have been through this process of re-training much more often than our freshmen. You’ll notice that seniors are up to speed much more quickly with a new subject area than are freshmen. Even the older knowledge, from previous semesters, comes back to them more quickly and they can add to that knowledge base more readily. Seniors probably (we hope) know a lot more about how they learn…what kind of training plan they need to enact. Freshmen probably do not know what works and what doesn’t to the same extent. They have had much less practice re-visiting and building upon previously learned material.

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