help students learn better

Here is a frequent situation : during a permanent copy consultation, a student (or a student) comes to see her copy, she got a very bad mark: 2/20. She doesn’t understand, she thought she had succeeded, she worked her class well, she knows him. Moreover, indeed, what she wrote in the copy is not false, but it does not answer the question posed or does not conform to the expectations. How did this student work during the year? How did she prepare for the exam? Was she confident before the exam?

A certain number of works (eg Karpicke et al., 2009) show that the revision strategy most frequently used by students is rereading courses (84%), often in a massed wayover time (just before the exam, etc.), comes next the performance of exercises (only 43%). However, rereading is one of the least effective strategies for long-term learning. Who hasn’t also noticed the desertification of the courses by the students, the difficulties (even the total absence) of taking notes, the attentional difficulties. Students also sometimes show difficulty selecting relevant information, organizing knowledge (and not just learning a list of isolated items), transferring what they have learned, etc.

What are the learning strategies that make it possible to learn in a sustainable and effective way ?

Learning strategies can be classified according to their ”  depth  “. Weinstein & Mayer (1986) distinguish 3 main types of strategies: repetition strategies (rereading, copying), which are the most superficial, organizational strategies (structuring, making diagrams, concept maps), which are deeper , and development strategies(creating analogies, answering questions, reformulating, creating mental images), which are even deeper and encourage the creation of a link between the information to be learned and the prior knowledge in memory. Of course, the deeper, more elaborative the strategies, the more costly they are in effort and the more effective they are on long-term understanding. Learning takes effort  !

To learn, it is therefore preferable to implement elaborative and generative strategies (“  generative learning  ”), that is to say in which the learner is active and builds knowledge. Fiorella & Mayer (2016) offer several strategies that promote this (see another resource on the subject): summarizing, building a conceptual network (mapping), drawing, imagining, testing oneself, explaining oneself, teaching others, put into action.

In their excellent site ”  The Learning Scientists  “, Megan Sumeracki and Yana Weinstein present in a clear and entertaining way how the results of research on learning can be used in education. They offer 6 strategies for effective learning:

Spaced recovery  : it is more effective to distribute your learning over several short periods of time rather than in a massed way all at once.

Training by retrieval (or testing): a great deal of research has shown that trying to retrieve information from memory, without having any support under the eyes, is much more effective on long-term learning than proofreading information. It is important to then verify the accuracy of what has been recovered. This strategy has shown many benefits on learning (cf. Roediger et al., 2011).

Elaboration  : asking questions, making connections, applying to one’s own experiences or memories, describing and explaining in one’s own words.

Intercalation  : alternating study sessions of different subjects (and coming back to them) is more effective than studying one subject completely and then moving on to another.

Use of concrete examples  : look for your own examples, think about how the concepts are related to the examples given in class.

Double coding  : using visual illustrations and working on the links between texts and images facilitates learning. Mayer’s (2002) work on multimedia learning has identified a number of principles for improving learning.

But it is not only the strategies implemented to process information ( cognitive strategies ) that count, there is also the way in which students organize their work, self-assess, regulate their learning (the strategies metacognitive). If we look at the ways successful students learn (McMillan, 2010), we see that in addition to the cognitive memorization and organization strategies implemented (identification and repetition of the main ideas of a course, ability to summarize and paraphrase, organization of ideas in a table of contents), other strategies can be identified. These students have a study schedule, they are attentive in class and take summary notes, they write questions to ask the teacher, they are familiar with the requirements and methods of assessment. Finally, we also note that these students place a high value on academic learning, they think that they are competent to carry out the tasks requested, they persist in the tasks and seek alternative solutions, their goal for learning is the mastery of knowledge, which allows them to see assessments not as sanctions but as stages in learning. These last elements refer of course to themotivation.

Thus, to help students learn better , we can:

Encourage the use of effective and appropriate cognitive learning strategies.

Support learning planning, lead students to ask themselves questions about their learning: do they think they have understood the course? what do they think they learned? Are they sure they understood correctly? How would they improve their understanding? Be explicit about the requirements and what is expected of them: what will they need to know and know-how at the end of the course, how will they be assessed? In a word: develop metacognition .

Arouse and maintain motivation  : be concerned with the value granted and the interest for the students of carrying out the proposed activities (what is it for? why am I learning this?), vary the tasks and activities to maintain attention and commitment, offering students choices to allow them to have control over their learning, offering them “doable” tasks in order to maintain the feeling of competence, giving them constructive feedback and giving them confidence in their ability to progress.

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