Teaching students how to learn

Many kids with executive functioning difficulties struggle, not just with learning, but with learning how to learn.  Hundreds of parents have told me that their child can memorize something, or successfully complete a math problem today, only to act as if they never saw anything like it tomorrow. For many of these children, their difficulties in learning result from two major limitations; difficulties with working memory capacities (which we discuss in another post) and a lack of reflective skills and strategies to consolidate what they are learning with what they already know.

Most students can learn to memorize facts but many struggle with understanding how to use this knowledge to enhance deeper learning. Acquiring knowledge that can be applied to new information and to problem-solving requires a deeper understanding of how to learn. Many psychologists and educators refer to this process as metacognition.

Annie Murphy Paul, in an article entitled Smart Strategies that help Students Learn how to Learn, identifies how metacognitive and self awareness strategies help students understand how to learn and acquire new knowledge. She cites a number of studies that suggest that struggling students know very little about their metacognitive learning strategies and as a result find it particularly hard to learn beyond simple memorization of facts. These studies suggest that struggling learners do not apply strategies such as drawings or diagrams, discussion of the subject with others, repeated practice, or going back over things they do not understand. Struggling students rarely ask themselves questions about what they are trying to master or check their own understanding by thinking about their thinking. They also do not review their work to see if they got it right or organize their time to study.

Paul cites a study conducted by Helen Askell-Williams of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia that utilized a set of questions designed to improve metacognitive strategies to help students learn how to learn. These questions include:

What is the topic for today’s lesson?

What will be important ideas in today’s lesson?

What do you already know about this topic?

What can you relate this to?

Is there anything about this topic you don’t understand or are not clear about?

One way to motivate children to master these strategies is to encourage their video game play.  For some struggling students, successfully applying these skills in their digital play can lead to academic progress and, by extension, an appreciation of how these skills might help them with academic demands. Helping a struggling learner to identify the skills and knowledge required within games and apps might just help them to apply their learning process in video game play to academic efforts, making game-based learning into real-world learning.

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