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Learning How to Learn: Strategies for Helping Students Develop into Lifelong Learners

12 Feb 2019 3:32 PM | Anonymous

By Ashley Waggoner Denton, Ph.D., University of Toronto

As an undergraduate student, I learned that being primed with the stereotype of professor could make me act smarter, that I might deplete my self-control if I refused the tempting cookies presented to me at a meeting, and that if I conducted a study whose findings were unexpected, I could just rewrite my introduction and tell a new story. Thankfully, I also learned how to learn, which prevented me from becoming trapped in a knowledge time warp. Psychological “facts” have an estimated half-life of seven years (Arbesman, 2013). Seven! This means that by the time you have completed graduate school, half of the psychological findings you learned as an undergraduate will have been updated, revised, or deemed outright wrong. Such is the nature of scientific progress. However, this helps drive home the point that one of our most important goals as teachers is to help our students develop into lifelong learners who will be able to continue learning (effectively and across a range of topics) long after they have left our classrooms. 

The term learning how to learn comes from Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning (2013), which includes six major categories: foundational knowledge, application, integration, human dimension, caring, and learning how to learn. If you are not familiar with Fink’s model, I highly recommend checking it out (see recommended reading below). Learning how to learn takes a number of different forms, and in each of the courses I teach, at least one of these forms is emphasized. The first form is learning how to be a better student, the second form is learning how to construct new knowledge in a discipline, and the third form involves helping students become “self-directing learners” (Fink, 2013, p. 59), the key to which involves the ability to critically reflect on one’s own learning. Below I provide some examples of how I encourage these various forms of learning how to learn in different courses that I teach.

Learning How to Be a Better Student

Without a doubt, this form of learning how to learn gets emphasized the most in my Introductory Psychology class. In order to encourage my students to adopt better learning strategies, I don’t just teach them what psychologists have learned about effective study strategies (see links to helpful resources from the Learning Scientists below). Instead, I first let the students tell me (via a survey or in-class response system) how they typically study, and then I frame the lesson around their responses. Specifically, I address the limitations of their common habits (e.g., cramming) and study strategies (e.g., re-reading), explain why these strategies seem appealing despite their limitations, and then provide the students with more effective replacement strategies (e.g., retrieval practice), including an overview of the research that has been done on each strategy and specific tips for how to implement these strategies in Intro Psych. Rather than presenting this information a preachy way (“everything you are doing is wrong and I know better!”), I want the students to recognize that they are not alone in using these common strategies, and that I completely understand why they use them, but that I have good reason to believe they can learn even more effectively by adopting some new strategies.

In a similar vein, I also present students with research on the effects of technology use on learning (both in the classroom and when they are studying on their own). Again, I ultimately leave it up to the students (as self-directing learners!) to make their own decisions, but I arm them with the information that will allow them to make informed decisions about whether they take notes with a laptop or on paper, where they should leave their phone during class or a study session, and so on. A detailed slide-deck that can be used for covering this material in your own classes is available via a link below.  

Learning How to Construct New Knowledge

We all know that students should practice writing and get hands-on experience doing research as much as possible. Encouraging this form of learning how to learn is standard in any research methods or laboratory class. But it’s worth spending a moment to reflect on the type of inquiry and knowledge construction students are engaging in across all of your courses. Are they being pushed enough? Are they being asked to truly write and think “like a [social/cognitive/clinical etc.] psychologist,” or are they simply getting practice using some new terms and theories? As an example, students in my Intro to Social Psychology course used to complete an assignment where they analyzed an event from a social psychological perspective. It was a perfectly good assignment, but what were the students actually learning? Application is important, don't get me wrong (it has its own category in Fink’s model), but I have since replaced this assignment with an observational study project where the students must develop a hypothesis; design a study; collect, analyze, and interpret their data; and write everything up in a final APA-style report. This new assignment obviously requires a lot more scaffolding and resources, but the students walk away from the course not just being able to apply the knowledge they’ve learned, but with the ability to potentially contribute to that knowledge base. Additionally, they are in a better position to recognize the limitations of drawing conclusions from single studies and the importance of replication and reproducibility.

Learning How to Become Self-Directing Learners

Most of what our students do, they do because we tell them to. For example, students in my Social Psychology Laboratory class complete a research proposal because that is what they are told to do. They develop their own research question and hypothesis and design their own experiment, which all seems perfectly “self-directed.” However, the task falls short of its goal if the students fail to engage in a critical reflection of their learning throughout this process. The way that I encourage this (in this class and others) is through the use of reflective learning journals. Reflection changes everything. When students are encouraged to reflect on their learning it can improve their self-monitoring and goal-setting capabilities as well as lead to changes in study habits and other skills. It encourages students to focus more on the how and why of their learning, rather than simply on what they are learning. Students who are able to critically reflect on their learning are much more likely to develop into self-directing learners, so I do whatever I can to give my students practice with reflection. More information on how I have implemented reflective learning journals into my statistics course can be found in the Waggoner Denton (2018) article listed below.

Self-directing learners are able to recognize gaps in their understanding and formulate plans for filling those gaps. As a developing teacher, you are likely to start noticing all sorts of gaps in your knowledge and skills (all those things that manage to go unnoticed until we actually have to explain it to someone!). The next time you go about filling in one of those gaps, take some time at the end to reflect on the process you just undertook. Who did you talk to? What did you read? Could you have done it better or more efficiently? And how did you know how to do these things? Would your students know what to do?

Below are some resources that may be useful as you consider how to incorporate certain aspects of learning how to learn more fully within your own courses!


Additional Reading/Resources:

  • Reflective Learning Journals in Statistics: Waggoner Denton, A. (2018). The use of a reflective learning journal in an introductory statistics course. Psychology Learning and Teaching, 17, 84-93. DOI: 10.1177/1475725717728676



Arbesman, S. (2013). The half-life of facts. New York: Penguin. 

Fink, D.L. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ashley Waggoner Denton is an Associate Professor, Teaching Stream in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. She received her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Indiana University and completed her bachelor's degree at the University of Toronto. She teaches courses including Introductory Psychology, Social Psychology, Statistics, and the Social Psychology Laboratory. She also supervises undergraduate research projects that examine questions related to the social psychology of teaching and learning.

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