Learning HOW to learn not just WHAT to learn

Learning to Learn

Most students have the experience of having information and concepts virtually thrown at them in the classroom, without ever being taught HOW to manage that learning. Learning how to learn is not a capacity we are just born with. It has to be explicitly taught. Students are rarely capable of learning to learn without some assistance.

I once had the experience of tutoring a Year 12 student in Biology. His room had one whole wall of jarrah pigeon holes. When I asked him where his Biology notes were at the start of the first lesson, he just waved his hand right across the wall and said “they’re all in there”. To me, this was somewhat of a revelation – that he just had no systems in place for dealing with his school work. Perhaps his brain was wired to reflect the wall of notes!   Learning how to learn involves using three different approaches.

Approaches to learning

These are cognition (learning information), meta-cognition (measuring your own learning), and affective aspects (anxiety, mood) of learning. The last two are not taught in schools! I have had so many students thanking me for teaching them the life-long skill of knowing HOW to learn, that it inspired me to start Brave Heart Tutoring.

I have a PhD that involved successfully embedding a learning strategies program into the Science curriculum at Methodist Ladies College. It was called the Brave Heart Curriculum. No content was missed because the content was taught via the strategies. One parent of a Year 11 student at Methodist Ladies College wrote that “the Braveheart Curriculum was the most important thing my daughter learnt at school.” I have countless cards from students thanking me for teaching them how to learn and describing the improvement in their grades.

Student lead learning

A part of a typical school lesson might involve me presenting a concept on Powerpoint. A particular slide might introduce a new concept so I would go over it on the board (cognitive learning). The next thing I would ask students to do is indicate with eyes closed how well they understood the idea. Thumbs up meant full understanding, thumbs sideways meant partial understanding and thumbs down meant little or no understanding. This process involved metacognition – the students had to reflect on their own understanding. Usually 3/5 students would have full understanding with 1/5 indicating moderate understanding and one or two students still not having grasped the concept.


Following this step, a student who had fully understood the concept would volunteer to come up to the front of the room and re-teach the same material. Then the thumbs up activity would be repeated and virtually the whole class would have their thumbs up (because the research shows that students learn best from other students). I would then set work for the class and take the two or three students who still didn’t understand, to the side of the room , to go through the concept using coloured textas on butcher’s paper, one on two, until they fully understood the idea and could explain it back to me.

Adapting Thumbs Up to a tutoring environment

These processes have been successfully adapted to a tutoring environment, with the individual student trying to teach me the concept. This process rapidly identifies misconceptions that can then be re-addressed. Students I tutor learn HOW to learn.

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