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Pop Quiz: Learning how to learn

I was a good student in high school, and I graduated in the top 10% of my class.  I went to a state university and took classes with 200-800 of my closest friends for most of it.  I did well and graduated with honors.

Then I went to grad school, and got my butt handed to me in my first class.  I discovered I had done well in school and as an undergraduate due to my very high capacity for memorization – I could recall scads of facts, definitions, even figure captions, and that got me through the mostly multiple choice exams I took in my major to get good grades.

I recently asked about core courses and whether they had value or were time and money wasters; my opinion there was that I valued the well-rounded nature of my own education.  Probably the main reason I didn’t run screaming from grad school after that first failure was knowing I had the skills I picked up in my much smaller non-science classes, like writing and some analysis from literature and history.  I knew I could do what was needed in science, it was just no one had asked me to before. That self knowledge kept me in school and eventually with a graduate degree.  I’ve said on occasion that it isn’t smarts that gets the degree, it’s stubbornness.  Of course being stubborn won’t get you anywhere if you don’t pass.  When I failed that first exam, I had to figure out what happened and fix it!

Of course, with the knowledge I had gained in my undergraduate education, I was already on my way to being a self-regulated student. (The scholarly article cited in the Faculty Focus piece is behind a pay-wall, so I’m trusting Weimer’s summary.)

Self-regulation is not a mental ability or an academic performance skill; rather it is the self-directive process by which learners transform their mental abilities into academic skills.

This process is in my opinion probably the most important thing students learn to do.  I try to explain to my students, coming in as first years, maybe 18 years old, though some quite a bit older, that this is the goal they should work for, not just to memorize their way through a class.  The major premise of self regulation is a student can learn anything, but that they must evaluate and assess not only the thing to be learned but themselves throughout the learning process.

I think self regulation is something that can’t be taught.  It can be encouraged, it can be modeled, it can be guided, but it has to be learned internally.  At least I haven’t found a way to teach this yet, meaning while I can explain the idea, students don’t pick up on it they way they can, say, cell theory, just by listening or reading about it. I know I figured it out on my own.  In the comments of the piece linked above about core courses, kagehi noted they learned more by reading on their own than from their college career, so clearly they had become self-regulated.

The Faculty Focus article explains that asking students to establish goals for themselves and assessing their own work are methods to help them achieve self-regulation.  I do that in all my classes in small and large ways.  What I see though is students who want to pass the course just to get on to whatever they think the next obstacle in their career path is don’t develop self-regulation and basically view these exercises as busy work, no matter how I explain the point of it all. Some who struggle believe the material is not something they can learn, so these exercises simply frustrate them even more. If we can’t get students in our classes to believe they can learn anything, including self-regulation, then we’re simply paying lip service to the “life-long learner” ideal.

Here’s my question to you: how do I get students to buy into the idea of self-regulation as more than a hazy concept to grasp, but as something that may serve them well throughout their lives?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the afternoon (ET).

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Apostrophobia is a college professor at a women's college in the US. She teaches biology, does pedagogical research on her guinea pigs (aka students), and has an existential fear of misplaced apostrophes.

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