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Teaching Students How to Learn

Published onJun 06, 2023
Teaching Students How to Learn

I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.

Albert Einstein

It has become a bit cliché among students to say: ‘Why should I learn all these dates, numbers, and factual data? I can Google anything anytime I want!’. And they are right; they can. So, what is it, in the 21st century, that students should learn? In my opinion, it is not the ‘what students should learn’, but rather the ‘how students should learn’ that we need to question. How we teach the students deeply affects how they feel about knowledge, skills, and most importantly learning itself. I believe, the experience of learning, of acquiring knowledge, is at the centre of education. A good learning experience motivates us to learn more, to experience it again, and therefore makes the university years prosperous and enjoyable. In this essay, I will describe what the aims and purposes of an ideal education are from my perspective, and how learners learn, and teachers teach in an ideal environment. I will also mention some techniques and strategies that can help teachers plan their courses according to the students’ needs. I will talk about some issues students struggle with, and practices that would or already did help students with these problems. Moreover, I would like to write about how experiential learning and positive education are good addition to education at university.

As teachers, it is our task to give students a learning experience that can fuel their curiosity, engages their intellect, and moves them to seek further learning opportunities. Often lectures and long presentations lack the motivating element. Although it is not this essay’s intention to discredit the importance of lectures, it aims to promote more non-formal, and experiential learning, during which students can actively manipulate the material they have to learn. The following section will give an overview of why teaching students how to learn is important. The sections after that will focus on practices that can help create an environment where learning is active and motivating. Finally, I would like to paint a picture of my educational utopia – a course that teaches students how to learn.

Teaching Students how to Learn

One of the common problems among students is that they do not know how to study. Students frequently use learning strategies that are ineffective or only moderately successful and they often lack information about the usefulness or applicability of highly effective learning techniques (Dunlosky et al., 2013). In an ideal world, students entering higher education would already understand useful learning techniques and have developed their learning styles. In this world, they know their preferences and can manage their time effectively. They do not get distracted, and if they do, they can easily direct (and redirect) their attention. These students arrive at university motivated, curious, and eager to learn. However, teaching students how to learn is often not an achievable reality for secondary education. Fortunately, university students who struggle with studying are not a lost cause; it is beneficial for higher education institutions to teach students how to be successful learners. All students may benefit from this type of self-awareness and self-understanding.

The most important thing would be for students to realise that there is no recipe, there is not one thing to master. Everyone works differently, and everyone must figure out the most useful practices for themselves. This can mean finding the most effective learning strategy; the time of day when one is the freshest; the environment that is least distracting and most helpful; or even the way one approaches the material. In this essay, five areas of learning will be explored that can be beneficial for students to be aware of, understand, and cultivate during their university years. These five areas are as follows: learning strategies (or learning techniques), learning styles, time management (including chronotype awareness), environmental control, and self-regulation.

Learning Strategies

Learning strategies, or learning techniques are practical tools or ways that help students manipulate the material and acquire content (McLoughlin, 1999). There exists an abundance of learning strategies, and even more information on how to use them, what to use, when to use them. Some examples are highlighting and rereading the material, explaining it to oneself, creating a mind map, using cards to learn facts, definitions or new words, practice testing, or even the strategy of distributing study sessions across time, and switching between topics and techniques within one study session (called interleaved practice). There are endless websites, books, videos, and more that aim to advice students on using such strategies. However, there is reasonable doubt that students can learn and understand the efficacy of learning strategies and the way they should use them alone. Students need help and support to develop their own study process.

This is the reason why in a review, Dunlosky and colleagues (2013) investigated some of the most used learning strategies’ effectiveness. They found that some learning strategies (e.g., interleaved practice or practice testing) were more effective than others (e.g., highlighting or rereading), but that students were often unaware of these differences and continued to use them in all their subjects. Moreover, they were also unaware of the importance of tailoring the study technique to the assessment type of their courses. Tailoring the study technique to the type of assessment one will have makes being tested easier and more successful.

For these reasons, educating university students about the usefulness of certain learning strategies is desirable. Moreover, letting students know what type of assessment they should expect and advising them on what learning techniques to use to process the course materials help them succeed in their studies. Furthermore, in my opinion, this type of metacognition facilitates learning and makes study sessions more enjoyable, and less stressful. Often students are anxious because they do not know whether what they are doing to prepare is enough, or they simply do not use effective strategies (Cassady, 2004). Knowing what to expect and what they are doing is correct can go a long way toward reducing student anxiety and making learning more satisfying.

Finally, university students would benefit knowing why some learning strategies work better than others. Understanding learning from a more neuroscientific point of view (which might be too advanced for high school) can help university students in the decisions they make about their study practices. Areas to discuss could be numerous, but the most important ones may be the following: the role of attention and its types, active engagement, why making mistakes is beneficial for learning, and how consolidation (a good night’s sleep) can do more for us than two extra hours of studying (Dehaene, 2020). A basic understanding of our brain’s physiology could be crucial to choose the right strategies, prepare for assessments, and reduce anxiety.

A Cycle of Learning

One of the techniques of non-formal education is experiential learning. According to Kolb (1984) and the cycle of learning, ideal learning starts with an experience. An example of an experience could be when students watch the ‘Invisible gorilla’ video (Simons & Chabris, 1999) before actually learning about attention, and ‘inattentional blindness’. This is followed by reflective observation, when the person can reflect on their experience based on their existing knowledge. Next, the person can develop an abstract concept, meaning they integrate the experience into their existing knowledge. In other words, they learn something. The final stage is active experimentation when the learner applies the new concepts. These become experiences, and the cycle continues. The cycle can be entered at any point. Kolb believed the most successful learning happens when the learner can go through all four stages.

This cycle can be integrated into courses and what students already do at university. It is easiest to discuss this through an example. Let us presuppose that we want to teach students what ‘inattentional blindness’ is. In the first stage, concrete experience, the key is active involvement. Students do something, or something happens to them. In our example, they watch the ‘Invisible gorilla’ video (Simons & Chabris, 1999). The students’ task during the video is to watch people dressed in either black or white pass balls between them and count the passes one of the team makes. What they do not know, is that in the middle of the video a person dressed like a gorilla goes through the scene where the players play. Due to attention paid to the counting of the passes, most people do not see the gorilla. In the next stage, reflective observation, learners take a step back and review and discuss what has been done. Students discuss how it could happen that although they were attentively watching the video, they did not see the unusual figure appear. During abstract conceptualisation, interpretations are made, and research is done. Students search for the reasons behind inattentional blindness and learn about attention in general. In the final step, experimentation, learners apply and practice their new knowledge. This could be an assignment they have to submit, research they need to do, or a test they take. This method of teaching and learning can be applied on a large and small scale. The stages can take place throughout an entire course or semester but can also serve as the basis for individual lessons. As small as one task of a particular lesson can be designed to conform to the Kolb-cycle. This design can enhance the learning experience because it is active, and students can immediately apply their new knowledge. Information and factual knowledge are still learnt, but in connection with actual problems and experiences; therefore, relevance is shown more clearly.

Time Management

Very few people (if any) have not struggled with time management in their lives. This struggle is especially striking at university when one often has to manage more than one course, several readings, and assignments simultaneously. The mismanagement of time can lead to procrastination. Procrastination is one of the most often mentioned problems among students I have talked to. Making scheduling decisions and adhering to them is a difficult task. It is important to explore what knowledge and what environment can help students with time management.

An interesting individual characteristic that can be linked to time management is one’s chronotype. It means the preference one has for the time of day to carry out certain activities (like studying) or sleeping (Reid, McGee-Koch & Zee, 2011). It can easily be measured with a questionnaire (Horne & Östberg, 1976); however, most students are not aware of this and the effect it can have on their time management. Some people are much more productive in the morning, and others in the afternoon (there are five categories people adhere to according to the questionnaire’s developers). What is most crucial, is that one’s chronotype is aligned with one’s best cognitive performance. Therefore, if someone prefers studying in the morning, and in reality, their performance is best in the morning, they will struggle to study in the afternoon. And indeed, that is what happens to a lot of students. According to Hartwig and Dunlosky (2013), most students study in the afternoon, even though they believe the morning is more effective. However, even though it is often said that one should start studying early in the morning, it is not a rule, and therefore no one should be pressed to do so if that does not work for them. Many students are evening types – so the question arises whether they should be advised or made to study early.

Other difficult but necessary tasks for university students are scheduling and planning. By now, it may sound a cliché that successful time management, such as keeping an agenda and making plans, is linked to effective studying (Bjork et al., 2013). University teachers may find it tiring and unnecessary to talk to students about the usefulness of making a to-do list or distributing their study sessions over time – precisely because these have become a cliché. It is often easy to say that a course schedule and shorter deadlines that require students to submit their work gradually and in parts solve time management and planning problems for them. This might be true; therefore, I would like to mention another side of it.

Many students confidently state that they do better work under pressure and that working by the deadline works for them. Several students with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) have told me that, but also some others without a disorder expressed the benefits of pressure. Students may leave their tasks to the latest possible moment consciously, which can also be considered planning, or do this knowingly but not planned. However, they are often shamed for these practices and feel they are failing just because they do not do what ‘they are supposed to’. There are also some attempts (often from teachers or parents, but even peers) to correct this behaviour (often without success). Although there is evidence that an interleaved and distributed planning yields favourable results, students should not be changed at all costs. And if they are changed, they should be changed through opportunities and practice, meaning that they must be given opportunities to practice and try techniques that are supposedly better. Thus, they can arrive at conclusions about their behaviours by themselves. It is difficult to change one’s time management strategies; therefore, change or motivation to change must come from within. Such an approach reflects positive education and can benefit students in the long run by relieving the pressure to conform to an imaginary picture of a perfectly organised student, and by cultivating their intrinsic motivation.


Students often struggle with distractions during their study sessions, and their study environment may be the reason behind it. Students must learn to manipulate and organise their surroundings to their preferences. Environmental control refers to managing one’s physical environment (Donker et al., 2014). This physical environment may include the place where they study, what their study space looks like, what the sounds are like (e.g., silence, music, chatter of other people), or whether they are studying with others around them. Learning environmental control is just as important as learning study techniques. We might think the environment does not matter, or matters only a little, since the study material does not change. However, the environment can be just as crucial as knowing how to approach the material.

Moreover, it can show just as much variation between individuals. It would be ideal to let students experience various study environments and instruct them to experiment with finding their ideal one. Students should not be forced to study alone, in the library, with music, or in the seminar room. Thus, it is crucial that we explain to students that environmental management (finding the most ideal environment for studying) is beneficial and can increase study success (Bjork et al., 2013). Moreover, it is important to give students various tasks in various forms. For example, provide them with reading material, but also with video lectures, or listening tasks, so that they can vary their environment freely. If we provide students with various learning materials, they are somewhat required to try different study environments. A video lecture cannot easily be watched around friends or in a café, therefore it would require the student to create a calm, silent atmosphere. Reading tasks can be performed while listening to music, or in silence. If the material requires them to observe something or do field work, they have to move and be aware of their space. These various forms can prompt students to experiment with their study environment and discover their preferences.

Self-Regulatory Learning (SRL)

Self-regulated learning is the cognitive, emotional, and behavioural process learners follow when they study (Baars et al., 2020). Academic success, the most heavily emphasised outcome of higher education, is strongly linked to successful self-regulated learning (Vuopala et al., 2019). Self-regulatory learning involves different phases and actions that learners do, such as goal setting, planning, self-monitoring, self-control, motivational control, and self-evaluation (Dent & Koenka, 2016; Järvenoja et al., 2020). It was found on many accounts that successful learners execute these tasks well. However, these strategies are not self-explanatory: students need to be taught how to self-regulate.

In my opinion, in an ideal educational environment, students are taught how to plan their assignments and study sessions, how to set goals, how to monitor their progress and their motivation, and how to exert control over their emotional, motivational, cognitive, and metacognitive states. They are also taught to self-evaluate, when to take breaks, and how to come through when they struggle with motivation. They learn how to manage their time but also how to forgive themselves when they cannot.

There are countless strategies to show how the teaching of self-regulation can be incorporated into the classroom. From the organisation of materials, through the types of challenges, students get to the feedback they receive, various techniques are available to assist students with SRL. However, educators might find it overwhelming to redesign their courses or include new techniques into their lessons. In this case, the best is to remember that self-regulation can be learnt through modelling. Educators should promote self-regulation through their behaviour. An ideal teacher who shows self-regulation plans their classes and defines clear goals for (or together with) the students. A teacher should monitor students’ motivation and provide short and clear deadlines for them. Finally, they should provide constructive feedback and evaluate students fairly. Moreover, a teacher should not fear constructive criticism from the students, and even seek it. Self-criticism and flexibility are valuable qualities in a teacher. Behaving like we want our students to behave will present a model the learners will want to follow and copy.

The benefits of learning these techniques are overwhelming. Interventions do not have to be long, or time-consuming, and educators do not have to reorganise their lesson designs to teach students successful self-regulation. Thus even without much effort, successful self-regulation can lead to learner autonomy, academic success, and a higher satisfaction level in learners in the higher education context (Zimmerman, 2008).

Conclusions and Recommendations – My Educational Utopia

In his book, How we learn, Stanislas Dehaene (2020, p. xx) says that ‘learning to learn is arguably the most important factor for academic success.’ What I have presented in the previous sections are essential and useful building blocks for the mastery of learning. In an ideal educational setting, I imagine that students are taught in a way that these strategies and ideas are implemented in the material and practiced throughout a student’s university career. However, I believe that even though many courses have already integrated these practices in their curricula, students often remain oblivious to the strategies that are available to them. Therefore, I propose a course that is entirely built upon educating the students about metacognitive practices, such as time management, learning strategies and learning styles, self-regulation, and environmental management.

The easiest (and most energy-efficient) way to teach students how to learn is to introduce a course built to teach students how to study, manage their learning, and cope with the stress of university. This course shall have several components. It should include teaching students about learning strategies, such as practice testing, mind maps, highlighting, and so on, including information about the usefulness of each strategy and how to tailor strategies to various assessment types. Students could thus acquire and practice the best strategies and make informed decisions about what they use when they prepare for their exams or assignments. How learning works in the brain should also be explained to increase metacognition, the knowledge about the underlying processes of good performance. Moreover, this course should be built around the learning cycle because it engages them with the material. Next, the course should include information and best practices about time management, such as how best to use to-do lists, what can be done to avoid procrastination, and how one’s chronotype can be used to our advantage. Such information should also aim to decrease stigmatisation of struggles with time management. Furthermore, students should be presented with a variety of environments and infrastructure the university offers to help them learn and study. Awareness of the common spaces, tutors, study groups, or the library can support the students. Finally, students should be educated on the benefits of self-regulation. Such a course could also prompt students to use self-regulatory strategies and give them specific solutions they can use in their everyday life. There are countless tools available online and offline that offer such support. Lastly, I would like to shortly include another point, regarding self-regulation, more specifically, emotional regulation: it is extremely important to look after students’ emotional balance. Building resilience with simple tasks within a course like this, and teaching students stress-release techniques could have immense benefits on student well-being.

Such strategies can easily be integrated into a course that teaches students how to learn. And that is my deepest desire: to create an environment, where students can freely experience motivation, curiosity, intellectual courage, and active engagement.


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