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Learning and Teaching Strategies

From personal experience and research comes advice on what works and why

Roald Hoffmann, Saundra Y. McGuire

Six Learning Strategies

The first learning strategy is to take notes by hand, even if the class notes are provided. Preferably no later than the evening of the class day, rewrite your notes, by hand, amplifying their content. During the rewriting stage, it is important that you not just recopy your notes, but rather both condense and extend them where appropriate, paraphrasing them so that you make the meaning your own. The question of whether taking notes on a laptop or by hand is more effective is a contentious one. We think taking notes by hand works best, largely because it is difficult to type in chemical structures, graphs and equations on a computer.

It is now well established that active engagement in the process is imperative for learning to occur. When students take their own notes, they are engaged, in real time, and their minds focus on the task. For kinesthetic learners (those who learn best when moving, activating large or small muscles), the movement involved in taking notes facilitates learning.

The process of paraphrasing and rewriting the notes shortly after a lecture helps to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory. If the rewriting is delayed longer than 24 hours, much of the information needed to flesh out the notes taken in class will have disappeared from accessible memory. And it is so much better that gaps in understanding surface in the engaged rewriting of notes, rather than in the frantic cramming the night before an exam. Students need to be convinced that it is important to take the time to rewrite their notes, even if they felt they have understood the material the first time.

Missed classes provide the second learning strategy. If you must miss a class, rather than simply download the notes from a Web page, get the notes from a fellow student. This strategy is another way into group discussion and learning. It is important to develop relationships with other class members and to form study groups early in the course. During discussion of the class notes, much learning takes place. A typical scenario: Student A (the one who missed lecture and is borrowing the notes) says “I don’t understand this part of what you wrote,” to student B, the note taker. Because B is a fellow student, A is comfortable asking her the question, whereas A might be reluctant to ask it of the course instructor. B explains, and is thus engaged in the most salutary of learning actions, teaching. The only potential problems are that the note taker may not understand, or may propagate a misconception. Additionally, some people are just too shy to ask another human being.

A third strategy makes the best use of a course’s textbook. Most students do their homework in solitude (or as much of that as a residence hall room allows) by trying to follow text examples of similar problems. But often the text examples are not exploited for the learning opportunities they provide. First do the obvious; study the text and lecture information relevant to the problems. But then treat the examples in the text and in lecture notes as if they were homework problems—work out the example before looking at the answer, and compare your approach to the text’s, not just your answer. There are often several ways to do a problem, but try to understand the text’s method. If the homework answers provided do not include a way of working out each problem, the instructors should be encouraged (that’s putting it mildly) to provide complete solutions. The ability to work a problem without using a model is the essential skill tested by all exams (which is obvious to instructors, but not to most students). This approach to homework focuses on methods rather than final answers. Furthermore, exploring alternative methods will help you to learn to be an agile, flexible thinker.

Study groups are important in learning, but it seems to work best to alternate group work with individual effort. First, you should try to do a homework problem or prepare for an exam on your own. Then, the collective wisdom of a study group can be enlisted. Three to six fellow students who have each done their best to digest and absorb difficult material are powerful resources for each other. Social constructivist learning theorists have shown that meaningful learning results from small study groups with two crucial features: discussion and problem-solving activities. Several websites provide excellent tips on forming and running successful study groups. But finally, you must return to solving the problem set or facing the exam preparation on your own.

Not all instructors are comfortable with homework done in groups, but our experience is that groups are very effective. Do-it-yourself is the primary principle of active learning, though groups can help resolve the occasional blind spot. Some social dynamics may limit group value—for instance, passive personalities are likely to merely listen.

Groups can also be useful study aids if students make up practice quizzes and tests for each other, thereby thinking from the teacher’s perspective. One of us (Hoffmann) tells his students: “The only way you will get into my mind about the exam is… to try to get into my mind. That means to do what I do, and make up an exam.” Creating a practice exam involves not only selecting and organizing all the material (including choosing what is representative and what is important) but also discussing the exam in a group setting.

Another way to enter the tester’s mind is by teaching the material, one student to another. When one of us (McGuire) asks instructors attending faculty-development workshops when they began to develop a deep understanding of the conceptual structure of their discipline, most say that it did not happen until they began teaching. Helping a fellow student not only accelerates one’s learning but moves one past disappointment about not getting things right oneself. Usually, if you can help someone else get going, the gratification is motivating for both parties.

Finally, we encourage students to set attainable goals. If you are spinning your wheels and studying does not lead to learning, the process can share some symptoms with depression—feeling unable to act, for instance. For this reason, it is important to tackle small, achievable tasks.

In working problems and taking tests, move slowly, from simple problems to more complicated, integrative ones. Success, self-achieved, builds confidence, and so is a very powerful motivator. When you attempt to reach a goal that is within your grasp, a wonderful cycle of initial success, more effort, and additional success is put into motion.

It is important for students to realize that everyone learns differently; an attainable goal for one student may be trivial for another. It is most relevant to develop the learning skills necessary to perform more cognitively demanding tasks.




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Of Possible Interest

Engineering: The Story of Two Houses

Perspective: The Tensions of Scientific Storytelling

Letters to the Editors: The Truth about Models

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