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Mining the Analogy

“Genius without education is like silver in the mine.” Benjamin Franklin may not have realized at the time that he was actually using a tool

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The strategies students use to engage with and learn material are crucial in any course. The course may be well organized and delivered brilliantly, but instructors can’t control how students interact with the material outside of class. For years, scientists (and a shout-out to those at The Learning Scientists) have decried some persistent and pervasive beliefs about learning strategies that evidence-based research does not support. I wondered: What strategies do my students use, and do any of those inaccurate beliefs persist?

To find out, I gave my students—mostly first and second years taking introductory math and chemistry courses—a simple multiple-choice survey on our first day of class. A total of 170 students completed the survey between the spring of 2020 and the spring of 2022. I designed the questions to gather information about prevalent practices in choosing how to approach assignments and learn course material; some of the answer choices included a method recommended by research. Although there was evidence that students were picking up and adopting some good habits, the results decidedly indicated an ongoing belief of optimal individual “learning styles.”

The answers to two questions were the most revealing: 81 percent of those surveyed said they study according to “their intuition about how they learn best” or “their past experience with what “works” for them,” and 70 percent agreed most with the statement, “What study habits work for you depend on the type of learner you are.” If these informal results are indicative of students in general, the myth of personal learning style persists.

When a student claims to have an optimal personal learning style, it suggests that they believe they need to interact with material in a certain way to be able to learn it. Coupled with other self-limiting beliefs they bring to my class, the result is potential inhibition of effective learning. Now, if you happen to have bright and motivated students who are highly interested because the material directly relates to their professional goals, this may not be an issue. For the rest of us, including me, teaching efforts must incorporate familiarity with the faulty approaches students are using as well as current effective alternatives.

Where I have the most control is in the design and delivery of course material, assignments, and assessments. Beyond aiming for appropriate flexibility and diversity, I can model in class and craft the work done outside of class to require effective interaction with the material and reward it with credit. In my math classes, working through questions to learn the material—both in class and for homework—is routine. Other types of courses require that I design for interactions with information. For example, evidence supports that doing an activity or answering questions about an assigned reading is preferable to simple repeated exposure for effective learning. By contrast, most students taking my survey still believed that simply reading something over multiple times, maybe including underlining, was the way to learn the material.

Explanations and periodic reminders of effective learning strategies should be part of instructor strategy. I begin the semester with an activity to encourage a growth mindset in general and about math in particular. The syllabus and weekly announcements include specific strategies for how to practice the material outside of class. I leverage the class after an exam as a “fresh start” opportunity (for a small amount of credit) for students to think about any strategies they need to overhaul. Unfortunately, my survey revealed that most students would respond to an instructor’s suggestion about how to learn the material with “try it once and then stop if I don’t like it” or “I think I should try it but then I do what I usually do anyway,” but I persist!

For example, I encourage students to adopt the approach of (in the words of the survey choices) “splitting the time between several shorter sessions, taking turns between subjects” instead of “wait[ing] until I have a block of time and then keep[ing] at it the whole time.” About one-third of the students thought each of those was best, but unfortunately, the remaining third chose “try it for a little and then get distracted” or “tend to find other things to do first.”

Another effective practice I encourage, beginning in class, is to challenge their knowledge without assistance first and “look back at notes or other information only when stuck”; nearly half the students chose that option in the survey. There were a predictable few that “might as well just Google the answers” or “just find someone who took the class before to answer it.” I might just convince those students yet!

Since I routinely incorporate practice questions in class and use in-class practice exams, I was encouraged by an 81-percent response of “I go through all of them [the questions] to confirm what I know and show me what I do not.” The remainder were split between a lack of motivation—“I don’t feel it is worth the effort if it doesn’t count toward my grade”—and the faulty strategies of “I use them to study instead of all the other material” and “I skip any that I think I know already.” I regularly remind students of the consequences of those approaches, emphasizing the teaching value of every type of planned exposure to the material.

For me, the greatest challenge is to address the underlying thought patterns that direct decisions about exactly when, how, and how much of the course assignments to do outside of class. How easily students can ignore or override instructor directions and admonitions when they actually do the work (especially over something else much more enjoyable)! At best, a perception that an assignment does not have value slips in; at worst, a firm belief of inability to meet the demands prevails. Both dampen motivation and therefore effort and potential. It is tragically hard to combat the loss of a learning opportunity in the face of such self-limiting beliefs as having a particular learning style. In a nutshell, inaccurate beliefs such as these can provide an excuse for poor effort or become a reason for inhibited effort. Accurately recognizing and addressing such underlying thoughts of each student is an ongoing learning process for me.

Sometimes factors outside a student’s control limit the study strategies they can use. Certain adept students may know themselves well enough to have developed unique ways of effectively learning. But learning scientists seek to understand the strategies that best increase the learning of humans in general. Embracing these strategies may continue to be largely at odds with other more comfortable tendencies and existing beliefs of students. Being knowledgeable about effective learning strategies enables me to build them into my course and encourage their acceptance, maximizing students’ probability of success.

Nancy Schorschinsky teaches math and chemistry at Penn State Schuylkill.