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Learning How to Learn

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The phrase "learning how to learn" has three distinct meanings: how to be a better student, how to conduct inquiry and construct knowledge in certain disciplines or fields, and how to be a self-directing learner.


The posting below, looks at three aspects of learning how to learn through reference to a series of college courses covering a wide range of disciplines. It is from Chapter 5, Changing the Way We Teach, in Creating Significant Learning Experiences An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses, by L. Dee Fink. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint. Fourth Edition. Copyright ? 2003 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 .


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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As noted in Chapter Two, the phrase "learning how to learn" has three distinct meanings: how to be a better student, how to conduct inquiry and construct knowledge in certain disciplines or fields, and how to be a self-directing learner. A number of teachers in this set of twenty-one courses created ways to promote each of these versions.

Becoming a Better Student. Several of the teachers in the sample took a deliberate approach to helping people become better students. They provided explicit attention to the learning process in the initial course in a curriculum. As a result, their students did better in subsequent courses in the curriculum. An excellent example of this phenomenon occurs in the Integrated Business Core (IBC) for beginning business majors. Although the teachers in this team-taught program do not spend a significant amount of class time explicitly addressing the question of "how to be a good student," they do put students in the position of having to learn a lot of material on their own, and the students excel. As a result, professors in later courses note that IBC students are able to get organized for effective learning much more quickly than students who have not been in IBC.

Learning How to Inquire and Construct Knowledge. A second meaning of "learning how to learn" is for students to learn how to engage in inquiry and the construction of knowledge in a certain domain of human endeavor. Several courses deliberately supported this kind of learning. For example, students in the biology, geology, and chemistry courses are all asked to formulate questions and then to work on answering them. The latter part of this task requires students to learn how to search for and identify relevant information and then to analyze that information in order to answer a question or solve a problem. And students in the art history course are given multiple problems to research concerning the relationship between religion, art, and architecture.

In all of these examples, the teachers give students practice in conducting inquiry (a form of "doing" experience in the model of active learning) and then give them constructive feedback on how well they are engaging in the process of inquiry.

In a few of these courses, special attention is given to how knowledge is constructed in particular disciplines. For example, the multidisciplinary geology course has students collect sample material from field trips and then, with different teachers, analyze those materials in terms of what they can learn about geology, physics, and chemistry. In each case, students are learning forms of analysis peculiar to each discipline. At the end of each unit, students discuss what was learned and how it was learned.

Becoming Self-Directing Learners. Although none of the courses in the sample focus explicitly on helping students become self-directing learners, several do pay direct attention to the learning process. For example, the subject of the education course is obviously "teaching and learning," but this course also asks students to reflect on their own learning as well and prompts them to explore the impact of their own learning processes on how they should teach in the future.

A number of other courses, for example, the honors course on technology, the law curriculum and feminism course, and the multidisciplinary geology course, all have students keep learning logs where they reflect on what they are learning, what they could or should be learning, and how they are learning. This procedure can definitely increase students' self-awareness as learners.

The next step in helping students become self-directing learners is to have them think toward the future and identify what else they need or want to learn, that is, develop a learning agenda. The students must also identify specific actions for learning those items on their agenda (that is, develop a plan of action). For example, the specific action could be reading a book on the topic, finding information on the Internet, talking to an expert or experienced person, observing something, or trying to do something oneself.

One example of helping students along the road to becoming self-directing learners comes from a strategy I used a few years ago. I was teaching a course on college teaching attended by a dozen or so graduate students from across campus, all of whom wanted to become college teachers. During the course, I had them browse through several books on college teaching, just to note the range of topics one could study in relation to this subject. Then I asked them to select the three topics that seemed most important and write a brief essay on why these three topics were important for them to learn. Later each student created a teaching portfolio as a concluding project for the course. In the final section of the portfolio, they were to write about what they were going to do in the future to become better as a college teacher. To do this, they had to identify what they wanted or needed to learn (that is, their learning agenda) and what they could do to learn that (that is, a learning strategy or plan of action).

Nearly all of the students later commented that creating this portfolio as a whole and especially doing that final section was one of the most valuable assignments in the whole course. It moved them well along the road toward becoming self-directing learners. And many of them later told me that they implemented their learning agendas within a year or two after the conclusion of the course.