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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

Three Transforming Motivators

So far, we have presented quite specific strategies. We now turn to some general observations about the education process, awareness of which can greatly enhance learning. These are directed toward both the learner and the teacher.

A student’s learning style impacts the way she or he prefers to take in and process information, and to interact with others. Some students prefer to memorize discrete facts and specific formulas and then apply them, whereas other students prefer to use broader concepts and organizing principles to derive the discrete facts and formulas themselves. Learning style can also refer to a person’s preferred modality—visual, auditory, read/write or kinesthetic. It is important for students to become aware of their learning styles and for teachers to know that there are different ways to learn, that more roads than one lead to this Rome. Why impose your way (and get frustrated when people don’t use it) when you can encourage students to learn in their own, optimum ways? When students become aware of their learning preferences, they learn more efficiently by, for example, converting lecture notes or a course manual or a text into their preferred format.

A potential difficulty is that when students determine their preferred learning style, they may be tempted to think they can learn only in that way. It is important to stress that the various learning styles can be learned; just being aware that something may be learned in a variety of ways helps. When students investigate a spectrum of strategies, consistent with the gamut of learning styles, they broaden their learning preferences and become better thinkers.

2010-09MargHoffmannFC.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageMost students think that learning selected terms, definitions and solutions to specific problems is the way to perform well in courses. Few of them realize that learning is a process, and that there are various stages of learning. Learning how to learn, through examples, is the key. In 1956 Benjamin Bloom and colleagues identified levels of learning proceeding from rote memorization through comprehension, application, analysis and synthesis, finally to evaluation. Recently, this taxonomy has been revised and verbs used to describe the levels. Additionally, the top two levels have been reversed. In the new taxonomy the levels proceed from remembering through understanding, applying, analyzing and evaluating to creating. (See the figure at right.)

We have found that teaching students how to learn has transformed many of them from rote memorizers and regurgitators into independent, self-directed learners. Showing students how Bloom’s Taxonomy is applied to “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” helps them understand the distinctions between the levels.

In addition to teaching students about Bloom’s taxonomy, we have found that when students learn about metacognition (thinking about one’s own thinking), they transform their attitudes about learning, their methods of study and their grades. Metacognition is a way of standing outside, of willed thinking about the acquisition of knowledge and understanding.

Is there a potential danger of talking too much about the metaworld, at the expense of applying what one has learned to the academic subject at hand? An introductory chemistry course is not a philosophy of education course. We may have another disagreement between the authors here. One of us (McGuire) can’t get enough of metacognition because she has seen countless students improve their test scores from below 50 to over 90 in a matter of weeks, just by using metacognitive learning strategies, whereas the other one of us (Hoffmann) tires and wants to grapple with real teaching. We do agree that when students become fluent in the language of chemistry (or any subject) their metacognitive sophistication will increase to the level that they no longer have to consciously think about it.

Our third observation reflects on the relationship between teacher and learner. The feeling that the teacher knows much more than you—knows more ways to transform raw facts into understanding or how to actually make an object or molecule—can intimidate a learner. You might think, “How could I possibly learn to do that?” But when respect for a teacher’s mastery accompanies a second feeling, that the teacher cares deeply about transferring understanding to you, a mysterious psychological force is turned on—the mentor/apprentice relationship.

There is nothing about this linkage specific to learning science—it is a constant of human society. The reason the relationship works so well as a learning/teaching strategy is, we believe, twofold: First there is a simple motivating force: The student admires the mentor (admiration does not exclude resentment of a perceived taskmaster) and wants to gain the mentor’s ken.

Second, learning is not a process that insists on perfect understanding at every step. That’s a caricature of mathematical proof. At its best, learning in science is a nonlinear sequence of observing facts then trying to explain them, and in the process gathering or being confronted with further facts and continuing to augment one’s understanding.

In this sequence, confidence that the mentor has wisdom and tools to impart can make the learner accept facts on faith, secure in the psychological confidence that the mentor will explain, in time. To put it another way, the mentor/apprentice relationship can guide the learner through unavoidable boring or tough stages, toward mastery.

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