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Professional Development Articles

How to Help Students Become Better Learners

Jun 09, 2017 jjamison

Effective teaching that supports student learning is a complex process (Chew, et al. 2009), yet there is much that teachers can do to help students learn more effectively.  The importance of undivided attention during class and study cannot be overemphasized. Faculty can set policies about inappropriate use of electronic devices during class. Students can be encouraged to turn devices off or put them out of reach during study. Teachers can develop activities and assignments that promote deep processing and thus enhance learning. Assignments and activities are basically orienting tasks that make students think about the material in certain ways. If the assignments require reflection and meaningful analysis, then the assignment will facilitate learning. If the assignment allows students to complete it with only shallow processing, then it may actually undermine learning and understanding. Although deep processing is desirable for learning, it is also highly effortful. Teachers must be aware of cognitive load in designing pedagogy, activities, and assignments to prevent overwhelming students (Clark, Nguyen, & Sweller, 2006).

Teachers who have developed expertise over many years can easily underestimate the cognitive load required for understanding certain concepts or completing certain activities. It is easy to forget how challenging learning a concept for the first time can be. Teachers must take care to not overwhelm students; they can adjust the amount of information presented, the time allowed for certain activities, or provide scaffolding for certain assignments. Furthermore, teachers must be careful to design their presentations, especially multimedia presentations, to minimize distraction and reduce irrelevant cognitive load. Mayer (2009) has articulated a theory of effective multimedia learning (see also Mayer, this volume). He has demonstrated how the design of multimedia presentations can help or hinder student learning.

Researchers have approached the problem of developing activities that lead to deep processing in two ways. Learning scientists have documented cognitive principles that can guide development of effective pedagogy (e.g. Ambrose, et al. 2011; Dunlosky, et al., 2013; McDaniel & Wooldridge, 2012). These include spacing learning out versus massed learning, interleaving topics, and testing effects (see also Carpenter, this volume; Pyc, Agarwal, & Roediger, III, this volume). The second approach is the scholarship of teaching and learning, which documents and assesses effective pedagogical practices. This can include effective study strategies (e.g. Berry & Chew, 2008) or effective teacher practices (e.g. Bain, 2004; Cox, 2011). Both approaches are useful to teachers interested in improving their effectiveness.

Another method to help students is to instruct them explicitly in effective study strategies (Chew, 2010). When students are explicitly taught a conceptual framework of the cognitive basis of effective learning that includes concepts such as metacognition, self-regulation, and deep study strategies, their learning improves. (Arnott & Dust, 2012; Askell-Williams, Lawson, & Skrzypiec, 2012). I have created a set five brief videos that help teach students the cognitive basis of effective study. They are available at

Formative assessments are a powerful means of promoting desirable study habits and learning. A
formative assessment can be any low stakes assessment activity that gives both the teacher and the student feedback about the level of student understanding (Clark, 2012). They come in many forms, such as think-pair-share items, conceptests (e.g. Chew, 2005), or classroom assessment activities (e.g. Angelo & Cross, 1993), but their goal is the same, to provide feedback that both teacher and student can use to improve student learning and understanding. When implemented properly, they are a highly effective means of improving student learning (Clark, 2012).

Formative assessments can be used to promote improved metacognition, deep learning, and appropriate retrieval and application. They can be used to detect and correct student misconceptions (Chew, 2005). They force students to practice recall, which promotes learning. They can demonstrate appropriate transfer of concepts to novel domains. Furthermore, they can promote student trust and rapport with the teacher. They show that the teacher wants to help students learn. They model the kind of thinking and understanding that the teacher expects before high stakes exams occur. There are a wide variety of formative assessments that can be adapted to virtually any situation (e.g. Hammer & Giordano, 2012).

Teaching effectiveness should be measured in terms of student learning because teachers have a huge impact on it, for better or worse. Poor teaching can actually hinder learning. Truly effective teaching makes student learning almost unavoidable. 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.

Materials were obtained from the website of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP)

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