Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Should Students Discuss How to Learn and Study?

As I look back on my own days in college, I'm embarrassed to remember how many things I believed about learning that got in my way!

For example, in my freshman advanced calculus course, I assumed that, so long as I could follow what the professor said in class, I was doing fine.

And I never considered going to a prof's office hours. If I wasn't doing all that well in the course, i was hoping he wouldn't notice until I could somehow catch up!

And, really, I didn't think much about learning (that is, improving what I could do, what I could see, and who I was).  Instead, I was more focused on grades and credits.  And even more on my extra-curricular activities (writing a book, serving in student government),  where I could see that I was getting things done, and that I was getting stronger.

I wonder how much more I would have learned if I'd had different beliefs about learning and how to learn...  (Yes, I did go on to get my MIT Ph.D. but I don't seem to remember much from my undergraduate courses.)

That's why I've been assembling a list of common student beliefs about learning.  And I turned some of them into a (first draft) questionnaire that an instructor might administer to students at the start of the semester:

After students answer all the questions, the instructor would start with item #1 and ask for a show of hands (or use clickers and ask them to click). Who strongly agrees or agrees?  Who strongly disagrees or disagrees?

If the class is split on a belief, students would gather in small groups, each of which has at least one student on each side of the question. They'd each summarize their own reasoning or experience.  Then poll the students again to see if there's been any change in their opinions.

Go through the cycle again for each item on the form.  (My first draft has 10 questions, but I can imagine that a faculty member might prune it to, say, 5 items before giving it to students.)

If the course features online discussion, the instructor might administer the questions online and post the results.  Each week the students might discuss one or two of the items online where there had been significant disagreement.

What do you think?
  • Does it make sense to talk with your students about learning and studying at the start of the semester?  
  • I know some instructors just tell students how to study; what do you think of asking them to debate the questions among themselves? 
  • If you like the general idea, what do you think of these particular questions?
If you're at GW and you want to talk, or to connect with other instructors who might also be interested in trying this in the summer or fall, please let me know.