Intentional Learning

Intentional LearningIntentional Learning is the name of my newsletter about strategies for learning and academic success at college. I spend most of my professional life talking with faculty and other instructors about teaching and learning, and I thought it was time to take that conversation to students.

The Intentional Learning newsletter comes out every Wednesday on LinkedIn. You can read it right here, and, if you’re a LinkedIn user, you can subscribe there, too. It’s written for students, so if you have students in your life that you care about, feel free to share it with them!

What follows is the first issue of Intentional Learning. In it, I make the case that students might be well-served by questioning their study strategies every now and then.

Early in my career as a math educator, I was teaching a medium-sized college statistics course and I was a little surprised at how poorly my students did on the first exam that semester. I decided to take a little class time and ask my students how they went about studying for that exam, and a number of students in this class of size 50 or 60 volunteered their strategies.

Some students said they looked over the problem sets that they had turned in and I had graded and handed back. Other students mentioned reading through the relevant sections in the textbook, maybe for the first time. And still other students talked about making use of the notes they had taken during class sessions. I added all of these strategies to a list on the board and then polled my students to see which strategies were most common.

I don’t remember the results of that poll, but what I do remember is that not a single student suggested the study strategy I would have recommended them to use: Find some relevant math problems they hadn’t already attempted and try to solve those problems, ideally checking their work somehow and getting help on any problems they missed. That would most closely approximate the exam situation itself, where students would need to solve math problems they hadn’t seen before.

Later, I would come to understand a lot about why this study strategy is way better than the ones suggested by my students. I would learn about concepts like retrieval practice, which says the more we try to retrieve information from our brains, the more that information will stick in those brains, and transfer, which is the process by which we apply what we know in new situations, something that only gets better with practice. There’s lots of research around these ideas that supports my recommended math study strategy as a smart one.

At the time, however, I was surprised at all these bright, hard working students who seemed to just not know about a better way to study for math exams. Now, maybe a few students actually studied this way and just didn’t feel comfortable sharing that in a room of dozens of their peers. But it was a clear a lot of students hadn’t thought to try their hand at new math problems as they studied for the exam.

Not only did I tell my students about my recommended study strategy that semester, but I also started helping students adopt it by providing review guides for each of my exams. Each review guide would suggest a number of problems from the textbook that were on-topic for the exam, usually ones with correct answers listed in the back of the book so that students could check their work. And I directed my students to my office hours as a great place to get help with the practice problems they got wrong or didn’t fully understand. Helping my students adopt this strategy didn’t mean every one of them passed my exams with flying colors, but it definitely helped more students learn the materials and do better on those exams.

If you’re a college student, you may be wondering now if you’re missing out on some study strategy that could help you learn and succeed in your courses. There’s no secret strategy that will guarantee success, mainly because learning is hard work no matter how you go about it, and particular strategies may very by course and discipline and topic. However, there are some general principles (like the need to practice retrieval and transfer) that will help in any learning context.

We’ll spend some time exploring those principles and how to use them in future newsletters, but for now, know that it’s probably useful to question your study strategies a little. And it might be really useful to reach out to your professors and ask them how they think you should study for your exams. It’s pretty easy for college professors to assume their students know stuff they don’t, and this is the kind of question that can be very useful to ask.

To read and subscribe to Intentional Learning, visit the newsletter page on LinkedIn.