Vol 9. Issue 33 / November 2, 2009

Teaching How to Learn

By Mika Ono

In a seminar at The Scripps Research Institute, Saundra McGuire, director of the Center for Academic Success and adjunct chemistry professor at Louisiana State University (LSU), shared her insights into how to help underperforming students, especially those studying science, technology, engineering, and math.

"[During my 12 years at Cornell University], I was a fairly traditional science faculty member in the sense that I really did firmly believe that there were some students that were smart enough to excel in the sciences and engineering and then there were other people who probably had the desire but were just not smart enough to do it," she said. "I now no longer believe this. There are just students who have developed strategies and used those strategies effectively and students who either haven't learned the strategies or for some reason can't motivate themselves."

The dozens of people listening to McGuire's remarks included faculty members currently teaching undergraduate classes, graduate students and postdocs interested in mentoring and teaching, and local scientists and professionals concerned about the issue of minority participation in the sciences.

McGuire, who won a 2006 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science for her educational work, cited many examples of students she worked with who were able to move their grades from Ds and Fs to As and Bs with a desire to change and a few simple, but powerful learning strategies.

The Importance of Active Learning

Many students, McGuire says, graduate from high school with the idea that all they have to do is go to class and they are entitled to an A or a B. They are also unaware that performing well in college requires more than memorizing facts, but instead calls on them to place facts into a larger conceptual framework, as well as analyzing and synthesizing the material.

The first step, McGuire says, is for students to become aware of metacognition, in other words, the ability to think about thinking. By being conscious of themselves as problem-solvers, students can find different ways to monitor and control their learning.

For students motivated to improve their academic performance, McGuire has found several practical learning strategies, developed over the last 10 years at LSU's Center for Academic Success, to be highly effective.

One core technique is "preview and review." The "preview" component is reading the textbook or class notes before class time, ideally formulating questions to be answered in the lecture itself. This encourages active listening. Some students, she said, report that after previewing the material the professor suddenly becomes much more interesting in class! Similarly, graduate students who need to read a paper can read the abstract, formulate questions, then go through the paper actively finding answers.

The "review" portion of the strategy involves going over notes from the lecture within the first 24 hours, to help move the material from short-term to long-term memory. After a week, McGuire said, it's too late.

In addition to "preview and review," she advocates "power hour" study sessions. These are periods where students spend two to five minutes formulating goals for the session, 20 to 50 minutes studying in a highly focused manner, five minutes taking a break, then five minutes reviewing what they've just learned.

In addition, McGuire said, some students benefit from drawing a conceptual map of the material, working from the big picture down to where the details fit in. Others are helped by paying particular attention to the examples in the textbook, not so much as models for how to do the problem but as a way to challenge themselves to apply the material.

Magical Mentors

McGuire also emphasized the importance of mentors, listing a number of ways that mentors can be effective in helping their protégés. These include:

  • Acting as a source of information about the culture, norms, and expected behavior of the group (e.g., bringing it to an individual's attention that people in a particular lab don't take hour-long lunches)
  • Tutoring specific skills
  • Demonstrating confidence in the protégé's ability
  • Assisting in plotting a career path
  • Acting as the protégé's confident (within limits)
  • Knowing "your protégé is not you," but someone with independent goals and preferences
  • Listening more than talking
  • Communicating high expectations
  • Conveying that setbacks are part of the game
  • Knowing when to call in others for help

McGuire also noted that the mentor-protégé relationship is a two-way street. To be a good protégé involves being interested in receiving advice and receptive to constructive criticism, taking responsibility, and giving credit and appreciation to the mentor.

The seminar, arranged by the Scripps Research Graduate Office, was co-sponsored by the American Chemical Society, BIOCOM Institute, and National Society for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE), and Scripps Research.

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Professor Saundra McGuire says that many students enter college with misconceptions about what it takes to succeed.