How Do I Study for Your Exams? Or, But, I Studied and Studied and Studied and Still I Didn't get a Good Grade on your Exam!
by Linda Davis, Grand Valley State University
Metacognition is a word that meant little to me initially; however, with some investigation of the literature I could find, and the announcement for this workshop on metacognition, I have found that this word may open a door to solve one of the most frustrating aspects of my teaching. Metacognition is defined in numerous ways, but the definition that I now find exciting in the sense that I feel it will truly improve my ability to help students learn is as follows: "awareness or analysis of one's own learning or thinking processes" (Merriam-Webster, 2008).
I am unsure if I ever questioned or analyzed how I learn until after a few years of teaching. I was dumbstruck when a student first asked me how to study! To me, studying was like running – I just did it without thought. I never paid any attention to the methods I used to learn, and I am quite sure I never had anyone tell me how to learn. This makes me rather useless when faced with the situation of a students saying to me: "I studied so hard for your exam and I still did poorly, so I am wondering if you can give me some suggestions as to how to study?" All I have been able to do by way of helping is to parrot what I have read in books on how to study; yet, I think I have helped only a few students in this manner. I think it is easy to teach students that many of us would claim as "smart" and who require little work – that is, they just "get it." But I know that I truly feel like I am a good teacher only when I reach and shine the light for a student who didn't "get it." And this is where I must improve.
Since I began teaching I have both struggled and been amazed by the different ways that people think. The different ways of thinking are never as clear to me as when a student asks a question and I have one or two responses in my head: 1) how in the world does the question the student just asked have anything to do with what I was talking about? or 2) never in my life would I have approached this topic or line of thought from that point of view! It can take my breath away and cause me to sit down immediately with the significance of the difference in thought. The various ways in which I have sincerely tried to teach to different learning styles include giving in-class assignments to do as groups – ranging from answering questions in the texts to completing crossword puzzles, using visual imagery to its fullest, offering lecture materials online (via Blackboard or WebCT), calling upon students regularly during lecture, showing films, and using animated illustrations to put forth new concepts. I tell students to not treat their texts as novels, but to outline and read and reread after skimming the chapters; I set up group study sessions with experienced facilitators; I encourage the use of flash cards or online exercises provided by the textbook publishers: yet my methods are really like casting a wide net in the hopes that it will work for some more by accident than plan.
I think and I hope that if I learn more about metacognition, I can help specific students figure out how they learn so that they improve their study habits and so that they are most successful at learning. I hope to learn of geologic exercises that will allow the students to analyze their learning processes and to improve them. A friend of mine who is a history professor made a very astute assessment about many of our students: yes, they read and they reread, but with a few simple exercises, one can see that the reading comprehension is close to abysmal at times. It is the reading comprehension, or ways to learn the material that I am most interested in improving so that my students learn, so that their work is more efficient, and so that their frustration levels decrease noticeably. And, I think it is important to accomplish these tasks in a transparent manner so that the students clearly understand why I teach in varied ways, and why some of the assignments I hope to come up with after learning more about metacognition are so important and have meaning to them.
"metacognition." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. Merriam-Webster Online. 1 November 2008: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/metacognition