What my instructors did not tell me in college affected my learning efficacy more than what they did. For instance, until about two years ago, I claimed that I was a person who “learns quite well by listening to the professor in the classroom and does not need to study much else.” The evidence to this claim was my good grades, many degrees, and professors who thought highly of me. Today, as I teach and TA courses and learn more about teaching and learning from the evidence-based education literature, I can see that I was lucky. Not knowing why or how I was learning did not impede my learning excessively, but this is not the case for most students. I now understand that, in general, students learn better if they understand the purpose of their course and its structure, know how to study effectively, and can disassociate learning from getting high grades. This statement describes my specific actions to help my students learn more effectively.
Guidance about a course’s structure can motivate students to participate and help them learn more efficiently. In designing courses, I use the backward design process (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998) because it helps focus instruction on relevant and meaningful learning. First, I start by writing the learning outcomes; then, I design assessments that align with these outcomes and develop learning activities that help students accomplish these outcomes. Subsequently, I share the reasoning for choosing those specific assignments and activities within the syllabus. For instance, under “pre-class readings,” my syllabi say that students learn more efficiently in the classroom if they recognize the lecture topic and associate it with what they already know before coming to the class. Likewise, under “in-class collaborative activities,” my syllabi say that students learn more effectively when they interact and learn from each other to develop an understanding of the content beyond what I provide. My experience from teaching courses and workshops is that students resist participating in the learning activities less when I share my reasoning.
Situating the course material into the curriculum and identifying the purpose of each topic can motivate students and help them learn more constructively. For example, while teaching dynamics to mechanical and aerospace engineering students, I pointed out that engineers use “models” to predict systems’ behavior and that a single system can have many distinct models—each useful for a different application. Students then collaborated to suggest simple models for a generic satellite and argue their models’ usefulness. I concluded the activity by mentioning that one of the goals of this course is to teach them the tools to find and verify models that describe systems’ motion. I then listed the courses that deal with the other models they suggested (for example, vibrations or finite element analysis courses would analyze the structural behavior of spacecraft). Another example from the same course is when I shared several real-life systems related to each lecture topic in the syllabus and matched my in-lecture examples to those systems. At the end of the semester, some students mentioned that the example problems with real-life connections helped them learn. Some even shared with me the future courses they were excited to take.
Knowing the difference between effective and ineffective studying habits can activate students’ metacognition (thinking about their learning) and help them learn more intentionally. At the beginning of the semester, I point out that passively rereading the lecture notes or looking over homework solutions are ineffective. I then offer alternative methods of studying, such as collaborating with peers to solve questions, explaining concepts to peers by finding analogies, and continually looking back and reflecting on learning. I also implement these learning methods in courses. For example, at the beginning of each class, I share the topic-level learning objectives to improve students’ attention and metacognition. Then, I gather all those learning objectives and ask students to focus on accomplishing those skills before the exam rather than studying for the topics. Similarly, I design in-class collaborative activities where students form groups, learn how to solve parts of a question, then teach other peers how to solve their assigned parts (a “jigsaw” activity). At the end of the semester, students in my courses share that the reflection questions help identify confusing points and act promptly. They also find that collaborating allows them to see how other people think about concepts.
Low-stakes assignments and options for resubmission can motivate students by helping them disconnect “grades” from “learning” in their minds. For example, in my Summer 2021 course, 20% of the course grade came from assignments I graded for completion, and 55% came from assignments students could submit late to get half the original points or could correct and resubmit to get back half the points they lost. Throughout the semester, 70% of the students corrected and resubmitted at least one of their homework solutions and received, on average, half a letter grade increase in their course grade due to resubmission. In addition, in end-of-semester evaluations, students mentioned that the chance to revise and rework some work helped them understand their mistakes and areas to improve.
In summary, being transparent about the benefits of each course component and topic, teaching how to learn effectively, and providing a less stressful learning environment enhance students’ understanding, retention, and learning experience. These approaches to teaching come from my learning, teaching, and TA’ing experience, my students’ feedback, and the evidence-based education literature. As I reflect on my teaching and add new tools to my teaching toolbox each semester, I feel proud to help students learn efficiently and responsibly and bring them one step closer to becoming lifelong, capable learners.