Developing Strategic Learning

First, I would like to thank BCcampus for providing me the opportunity to be part of the Scholarly Teaching Fellows Program! The program has provided the resources to support my development of student strategic learning curricular interventions and investigate their efficacy. Additionally, I was given the opportunity to work with a number of other passionate teaching scholars who are investigating really fascinating scholarly questions.

Post by Peter Arthur, BCcampus Scholarly Teaching Fellow, Professor, University of British Columbia

What is Strategic Learning?
Strategic learning focuses on teaching students strategies (i.e., metacognition and mindsets) they can leverage to enhance their ability to learn. Ultimately, the goal of strategic learning is to help students become self-directed lifelong learners who can effectively learn in any learning environment.

Students at long table

What is Metacognition?
Metacognition is the set of processes involved in monitoring and directing one’s own thinking (Flavell, 1976; NRC, 2001). In higher education, students are often required to work more independently and manage their time and approaches to learning with less support. Consequently, students who can guide their own thinking and become self-directed are at an advantage.

Ideally, we would like our students to be self-directed and to be able to assess the demands of a learning task, evaluate their own knowledge and skills, plan their approach, monitor their progress, and adjust their strategies as needed. Additionally, after the learning activity, students would reflect on or evaluate the strategies they implemented to determine how they can improve their learning strategies for next time.

These self-directed learning strategies involve both metacognitive regulation and knowledge.  Metacognitive regulation refers to activities that control one’s thinking and learning, such as setting goals, planning, monitoring comprehension, and evaluating. Metacognitive knowledge is an awareness of what impacts your own learning, knowledge of skills and strategies that work best in a given learning context, and how and when to use such skills and strategies.

Strategic Learning Study
In response to faculty at UBCO finding that first-year students are unprepared to take on the responsibility of learning at university, I have been investigating the relationship between students’ study strategies, metacognition, growth mindset, failure mindset, grit, and academic performance. My current strategic learning study builds on this research. My investigation focuses on the impact on learning and students’ metacognition when strategic learning curricular interventions are taught in first-year applied science. The following four curricular interventions were investigated:

Four Strategic Learning Interventions

Strategy 1: Goal Setting (Metacognitive Regulation)
Students setting clear learning goals related to a course provides vision, direction, and motivation. Researchindicates people are more successful with attaining their goals if they write them down, create a plan to achieve them, share them with someone else, and have some form of accountability (Mathews, 2015).

A two-page scaffold with prompts that provide students the opportunity to develop goals in a “SMARTER” format aligning with their vision in relation to the course.  Another feature of this intervention is that students create a plan to achieve the goal(s), share their goals with peers, and develop some form of accountability (i.e., report to classmate on progress towards goals each week).

Strategy 2: Evidence-based Learning Strategies (Metacognitive Knowledge) and Planning and Monitoring Learning (Metacognitive Regulation)
Because first-year classes are typically content heavy, faculty focus on teaching content, even when many students do not have strategic learning strategies that assist with successfully learning the material. For example, in a previous study, I asked over 2000 students, “Do you study the way you do because someone taught you to study that way?” Only 19 per cent of students answered in the affirmative. Consequently, it is important to provide students with evidence-based strategies to assist with learning the material. Additionally, students have great demands on their time, and planning their learning better ensures their success.

A lesson and handout that focuses on using evidence-based learning strategies, as well as a planning tool to assist with preparing for exams.

Strategy 3: Reflection (Metacognitive Regulation)
Teaching students how to reflect is both a tool to learn a competency and an enhancement of the way they learn. As John Dewey (1933) stated, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” Students need to be taught how to reflect. Reflection allows you to practice recall, which strengthens and consolidates memory. Additionally, and more importantly, there is an analysis component of processing of what you did and therefore what you learned from the experience.

Assessment reflection. This intervention focuses on providing reflective prompts to assist students with reflecting on how they learned the competencies for an exam, what worked on the exam and what didn’t, and consequently how they can improve their learning strategy to become a better learner.

Strategy 4: Intelligence and Failure Mindsets
Students with a fixed mindset believe their basic qualities, like intelligence or talent, are fixed traits. Further, they believe they are born with a certain amount of intelligence and they can’t do much about it. Consequently, since they can’t control how much intelligence they are born with, they tend to give up more easily, because they come to believe there is nothing they can do to learn the material. Conversely, students with a growth mindset believe their intelligence and other traits can be developed through effort and practice. Students feel in control of their own intelligence and tend to dig deeper when faced with learning challenges.

 A student’s view of setbacks and failure (failure mindset) can negatively impact their learning. Some students believe failure is an enhancing experience that supports learning and growth,  while others see failure as a debilitating experience that inhibits learning and productivity (Haimovitz and Dweck, 2016).

Three key concepts were taught:

  1. Students were supported with developing a growth mindset towards intelligence and all areas of life. Many students have a growth mindset towards sports, i.e., a student will spend all day practicing hockey because they believe the more effort they put into practice, the better they will be. However, that same student may have a fixed mindset towards writing, or math, i.e., a student feels they have been bad at math all their life and there is nothing they can do about it. Consequently, students need to become aware of areas in which they possess growth and fixed mindsets and strategies to overcome those fixed mindsets.
  2. Students were encouraged to examine their mindset towards challenge. An alternative view is to embrace challenge and that only through challenge will there be growth. Some students feel they must be “not smart” if they are having difficulty learning a competency; however, they often do not realize some challenge is very important and key to learning growth. An example of this is Bjork’s “desirable difficulties” to enhance learning.
  3. Students were supported with viewing setbacks and failure (failure mindset) as something that happens to us all, and we can view it as either debilitating or as an experience that facilitates learning and growth.

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