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By Amy Erickson
Have you ever been frustrated by what looks like a lack of effort on behalf of your students? When I was a strength and conditioning coach, I saw this quite a bit. Student-athletes did not connect how time spent wisely in the weight room would pay off later in the season. They would skip strength training sessions or put in minimal effort, only to act surprised when injuries cropped up or they had a mediocre performance. Then, like now, I tried to explain to students that lifting weights was a bit like studying; you can’t cram the night before the national championship and expect to walk away with a trophy.
Dr. Lolita Paff (2016) has similarly struggled with students who glance at materials, try to commit things to memory at the last minute, and then wonder why they fail the exam. She discusses misconceptions surrounding the learning process in her 20-Minute Mentoring Video “How Can I Help Students See that Sweat – Working Hard and Smart – is Key to Their Success?” Her advice is to examine how students learn as well as support them with instructional strategies that encourage thoughtful engagement with the learning materials (Paff, 2016).
How Students Learn
Dr. Paff’s (2016) lecture shares two misconceptions about learning: “one is that it happens quickly and two, that learning is easy” (para. 4). This reminded me of a lecture given by José Bowen, president of Goucher College and author of Teaching Naked. In his lecture, he discussed the immediacy surrounding student learning. Students are used to rushing to Google for answers to their questions. If students come to you with questions, Bowen recommended telling students that you need time to think about the question; to do some additional reading and research before giving an answer. This might puzzle students who want an immediate answer, but it allows instructors to model learning and study methods that promote “deep processing, meaningful analysis, interpretation and application” in the classroom (Paff, 2016, para. 7).
How Do You Learn?
“If we want students to go beyond memorization and surface learning, then we need to be concerned with how students learn, not just what we’re teaching” (Paff, 2016, para. 5). In order to teach students how to learn, though, we have to realize that some students may not know how to study.
I listened to a webinar last year where the participants discussed distraction and how it related to student study habits. Students were filmed while reading their online textbooks and even the students were surprised by their own behavior. They would spend a bit of time with the online textbook material, then they would bounce back and forth between Facebook, Snapchat, email, text messages, and shopping. This clearly did not foster deep connections with the material. Perhaps we should start with a discussion about turning off phones and tuning in to academic work.
I’ve encouraged students to actively engage in their readings by using the SQ3R strategy. If you are not familiar with this strategy, it stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review. Students are first asked to skim through reading material. Next, they are encouraged to turn chapter headings into questions, forcing them to look for answers when they are reading. After reading the material, they are asked to recite it back to a family member or friend. If they cannot do so, they know the material they need to review.
Study Groups & Quiz Material
Dr. Paff (2016) recommends facilitating study groups, as some students may want to get together to study, but they may not know where to start in terms of content. Dr. Paff (2016) suggests having the class come up with questions surrounding challenging content and then allowing students to collaborate (inside or outside of class) to work on the material together. If you are teaching online, you could set up a meeting site using a resource like Twiddla.com or Vyew.com. Doing so would allow you to monitor the discussions to give guidance, share resources, or make corrections.
Quiz results can also be discussed in study groups so students can understand where mistakes were made or misunderstandings occurred. Using quiz results allows you as the instructor to identify where students are struggling, and it allows students to learn from and correct their mistakes in preparation for mid-terms or final exams (Paff, 2016).
Mind Mapping, Concept Maps, and Bubble Maps
In order to “make connections and recognize the interrelationships between concepts,” Dr. Paff recommends using concept maps (para. 6). In his wonderful article “Mind Mapping for Better Learning,” Dr. Orlando (2016) agrees with the idea of mind maps, saying, “one of the most important skills we can teach students is to identify the underlying principles that tie together different discrete items. This is because pattern recognition is central to expertise” (para. 1). (If mind maps or concept maps are new to you, Dr. Orlando gives multiple links to sites with sample mind maps.)
Mind maps or concept maps serve as more active study strategies and allow students to understand the material in a more comprehensive manner. Again, if you are an online instructor, you may want to set up a site like bubbl.us to allow multiple students to collaborate on maps.
Clarity in Communication and Expectations
Dr. Paff (2016) recommends that we are abundantly clear with our instructions and our expectations, too. Students shouldn’t be so puzzled by instructions that they waste time trying to sort that out instead of spending time focusing on the material. Adding a microlecture to your instructions or even an example could go a long way in terms of helping students put more effort into the assigned work.
Finally, Dr. Paff (2016) makes another excellent point about expectations surrounding academic work by recommending that students define the components of top-notch work. If the class can come to an agreement on what constitutes excellence, then clear directions exist and there should be fewer surprises when grades are received.