I Was Once In Your Shoes
I Get It
Let me say a little bit about why I have so much compassion for students. Confession time: Throughout my undergraduate career, I almost never studied until the night before an exam. I love to tell the following story, which illustrates my cluelessness in full Technicolor. One day, during my senior year at Southern University in Baton Rouge, I was walking down the hall with one of my favorite chemistry professors, Jack Jefferson. Dr. Jefferson asked me a question about a basic chemical reaction, and I breezily replied that I had no idea how to answer his question, feeling absolutely no shame about my ignorance. At that time, I had no learning goals.
Another story: After graduation, I headed to Cornell to pursue my graduate degree in chemistry, and I knew that when I arrived, I would have to take placement exams in general, organic, analytical, and physical chemistry. So I arrived in Ithaca a week early and set myself on a crash memorization course. I passed all my exams and was given a full load of graduate courses. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that if I passed the placement exams the subsequent courses I took would require mastery of all the content I’d just tried to force-feed my brain!
I continued my practice of cramming the night before an exam and began to make lower grades in my courses than I ever had in my life. I decided to visit one of my professors, Mel Goldstein, to discuss my grades. Dr. Goldstein gave weekly homework assignments but made them optional. Of course, I never tried to do them until the night before the test. But at that point, I had nowhere near enough time to figure out the problems, so I would give up and go back to rote memorization. During our chat in his office, Dr. Goldstein told me that he was surprised my grades weren’t worse, given that I never did the homework. Then he asked me why I never did it. The question caught me by surprise, so I lied and said that I did the homework but didn’t turn it in because it was optional. (I’m pretty sure he knew I wasn’t telling the truth.) It had never occurred to me that doing nonrequired homework would help me learn the material and improve my performance on tests! Instead of seeing the relationship between effort and performance, I began to think, “If I can’t make As in these courses by doing what I’ve always done to make As, chemistry must not be what I was meant to do.”
Although I was at Cornell on a full Danforth Foundation fellowship, I was still required to teach because Cornell views teaching as crucial to its graduate students’ intellectual and professional development. That requirement turned out to be my saving grace. I was given one section of introductory chemistry as a teaching assistant, and I instantly fell in love with teaching. I had never taught before, but very quickly I saw that I was effective. My success with students was addictive because I loved seeing that “aha!” moment on their faces. They would come to me in a fog of confusion, convinced that chemistry would be impossible to learn. But when I helped them understand the logic of the discipline, introduced them to a systematic way to approach the material, and expressed confidence in their intellectual abilities, they suddenly began to understand and instantly became motivated to spend time mastering the material themselves. I found, and still find, student transformation intoxicating. And I am convinced that every learner can personally experience it.
In sum, because I found teaching so exciting, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in chemical education and have never looked back. I’m
happy to report that, thanks to the learning strategies I acquired along the way, I never earned a grade lower than A in any of my chemistry or education courses for the rest of my graduate career. And today, I know exactly what I would say to myself in 1970 to earn all As in my Cornell graduate chemistry courses!
The good news is that anyone can undergo the same transformation that I did. I freely admit that I was clueless. If I changed, you can too. You can learn simple strategies that will boost your grades and make learning more fun than you ever thought it could be.
Questions to Ask Yourself
1. Can you relate to the author’s experience? If so, how? If not, why?
2. Do you believe your current academic performance is related more to your ability or the amount of effort you are putting into your courses?
3. Do you believe you can undergo the same change as the author?
WHY DON’T ALL STUDENTS ALREADY KNOW HOW TO LEARN?
“What did most of your teachers in high school do the class period before the test?”
“They gave us a review.”
“What did they do during the review?”
“They told us what questions were going to be on the test and gave us the answers.”
Consider some interesting statistics. The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) published a study in 2017 that revealed that 56.0% of fall 2016 incoming freshmen reported spending fewer than 6 hours per week doing homework in 12th grade (Eagan et al., 2017, p. 47), but 92.5% of survey participants said that they graduated from high school with an A or B average (Eagan et al., 2017, p. 31). These statistics demonstrate that for many students, doing the focused, joyful work of deep learning has not been required for good grades.
Presumably because of their grades, these students are also extremely confident; 72.6% of them believe their academic ability is above average or in the highest 10% among people their age (Eagan et al., 2017, p. 49). So, many of you are not only accustomed to successfully breezing through school but also unaware that horizons of learning and success exist beyond those you have already encountered (Figure 2.1
Why Many Students Do Not Know How to Learn
• They did not need to learn in order to make As and Bs in high school.
• They believe they are in at least the top half of students their age, unaware that they can become smarter.
Note. Data from HERI support the idea that many students do not know how to learn because they are overconfident and academically successful without much effort (Eagan et al., 2017).
Okay, So High School Was Easy. Why Don’t Some Students Heed Warnings About What They Need to Do in College?
One struggling math major from rural Louisiana on a full scholarship at LSU explained,
People told me that college was going to require a lot more of my time and effort, but I didn’t believe them because I had heard it before. They said that high school was going to be a lot more difficult than middle school, but it wasn’t. And when I went to middle school, they had told me it was going to be much harder than elementary school. But I didn’t find that at all.
So this young man, along with the other 72.6% of students who judge themselves to be above average compared to their peers (Eagan et al., 2017), very reasonably did not imagine that the typical warnings about a college workload applied to him.
Students are often told that they need to change their habits and do something different when they go to the next level of education,
whether high school, college, graduate school, or professional school. But that’s like saying, “When you go to another planet next month, you’ve got to breathe differently.” It’s not your fault that you may not know what to do to be successful in a more challenging academic environment. Thankfully, there’s a way to learn how to breathe differently—how to engage in deep, satisfying learning.
Questions to Ask Yourself
1. Discuss how easy or difficult you found homework, papers, quizzes, and exams at your previous level of education (e.g., middle school, high school, college, or beyond). Is the learning more difficult at your current level of education? If so, in what ways?
2. How is your current learning experience different, if at all, from your previous level of education (e.g., middle school, high school, undergrad)?
What It Is and How It Can Turbocharge Your Learning
“I have tried the suggestions you gave . . . and it was like magic, seriously.”
—Matt J., junior, Department of Microbiology at Weber State University, personal communication, September 15, 2014
In this chapter, we investigate the overarching principle that enables students to stop failing their classes and start acing them: meta-cognition. We also get our first taste of how learning strategies can dramatically improve performance.
First, we learn what metacognition is and how it helped two students increase their exam scores by at least 30 points. Second, I ask you to do a brief exercise that demonstrates the huge difference that learning strategies can make. Finally, we discuss why these strategies make such an impact and enable you to take charge of your own learning.
A Tale of Two Students
shows the dramatic improvement of two students after learning about metacognition. Some faculty in my workshops have thought that these students are fictional, but I assure you they are as real as you and I. Have I got your attention?
A Tale of Two Students
Exam scores showing rapid and dramatic progress of two LSU students after they learned metacognitive strategies
Travis, third-year psychology student
47, 52, 82, 86
Dana, first-year physics student
80, 54, 91, 97, 90 (final exam)
. Figure 3.1
shows the exam scores of two students before (plain text) and after (bold text) being exposed to metacognitive strategies. Travis received a B in Introductory Psychology, and Dana received an A in General Physics.
Before we learn more about Travis and Dana, let’s investigate what metacognition means.
What Is Metacognition?
, a term coined by John H. Flavell (1976), is thinking about your own thinking
It’s like you have a big brain outside of your brain looking at what your brain is doing. Aspects of Flavell’s definition of metacognition
appear in Figure 3.2
When you use metacognition, you become consciously aware of yourself as a problem solver, which enables you to actively seek solutions to any problems you may encounter, rather than relying on others to tell you what to do or to answer your questions. As you make the transition from being a passive student to being a proactive learner, you will...