Learning to Learn

The first exam produces considerable angst for students. They ask lots of questions about test content, format and grading (depressingly, more questions are sometimes asked about the exam than the material). In accounting, we invest time going over the assessment: content, points, grading system, and format. I don’t believe in surprises. I try to make expectations clear. I’ve been pretty successful in this regard. Students rarely complain about my accounting exams (in person or on the course evaluations).

In contrast, questions about how to study or prepare for exams are asked less frequently. Until recently I took my cue from students. If they didn’t ask how to study, I didn’t spend much time helping students learn how to learn.  I assumed they knew. Until I read Preparing Faculty to Apply the Science of Learning. Some students are effective learners, but many get tangled up in limiting misperceptions.

Spider web

Stephen Chew makes this point in the chapter titled, “Helping Students to Get the Most Out of Studying.”

Should teachers be concerned with their students’ ability to learn? The answer to that question depends on a teacher’s belief about the primary goal of teaching. If one believes that the primary goal of teaching is to present information and that it is the sole responsibility of the students to learn the information, then whether or not students learn is not relevant to the teacher. For these teachers, their primary responsibility is to present accurate information in a clear, interesting, and well-organized manner. If however, a teacher believes that the goal of teaching is to develop student understanding, then whether and how students learn is a major concern. p.215

Chew scaffolds the process by first addressing common student misperceptions about learning. Two struck me as particularly apt for students in accounting:

  • Learning is easy. Most students think learning happens much more quickly than it really does. Students underestimate learning’s time and complexity when they: write papers the night before (without revision); skim instead of read; and “look over” notes instead of interact with them.
  • Knowledge is comprised of discrete chunks of information. This belief leads students to rely on flashcards and memorization of definitions without considering interrelationships, making inferences, or applying concepts.

Chew follows with strategies teachers can incorporate in assignments and lessons.  Here are a few examples, including how I’ve implemented them in accounting.

Incorporate reflection. I’ve been more intentional about asking thinking questions as part of class work. Why was this question asked? How is X related to Y? What other information would you want to know? What was the most challenging topic in the chapter? How does this material connect to what you’ve learned before? These kinds of questions promote connections across topics and spur classroom interaction- a win/win!

Be mindful of cognitive load. Complex assignments, difficult website navigation, or unclear instructions are examples of unproductive cognitive load that inhibit learning. Avoid overwhelming students. I use the analogy of a houseplant. It needs enough water to thrive and grow, but too much water turns the leaves yellow and might drown the plant. Avoid drowning your students. I’ve asked family members to look at my online materials and other course resources for the purpose of evaluating clarity, readability and organization.

Provide study tips. Provide, or better yet, develop with students a list of strategies that promote deep learning based on cognitive science [See for example, Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel’s (2014) Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning]. I provide a timeline for study based on “spaced learning.” I make practice tests for students to use the “testing to learn” strategy. I recommend students create their own problems or work additional problems from the book and send me their work for feedback or meet with me during office hours to review.

There is an important distinction between teaching that makes it easy for students to learn and teaching that makes it easy for students to get good grades. Good teachers focus on the former. They do so both by designing effective pedagogy and teaching students to be effective learners. P. 221

What strategies do you use to help students “learn to learn”? Please share!


Brown, P.C., Roediger, H. L, & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chew, S.L. (2014). Helping Students to Get the Most Out of Studying. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on February 3, 2016, in Learning, Students, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Maryellen Weimer

    Good post, dear friend. If you google Chew and go to his site at Samford, he has this really impressive collection of videos on study skills that he’s done for students. Maybe I’ve already recommended them? Sorry for the repeat, if so. But they are really good. I have been meaning to do a blog post on them.

    Love you

  2. Thanks for the reminder about Stephen Chew’s website. Here’s the link to his video resources (they are excellent):

  1. Pingback: Resources, Strategies & Advice | Guide on the Side

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