How do students become self-direceted learners?

Principle: To become self directed learners, students must learn to assess the demands of the task, evaluate their own knowledge and skills, plan their approach, monitor their progress, and adjust their strategies as needed.

I found this chapter, together with chapter 3 on students’ motivation, of special interest. Chapter 3 and 7 are those where I have learnt more and that made me reflect very deeply on my role as teacher/instructor.

The chapter is basically about a process - the improvement of students’ metacognition (the process of reflecting on and directing one’s own thinking) skills - in which a good/experienced instructor can really make a difference. Developing metacognition skills is incredibly difficult. I’m not completely sure whether my metacognition skills are fully developed!!

I’ve been reading most of this chapter while I was studying very hard for an exam (to get a new job position). So, I was in the position of an “experienced learner”. I had very little time (because, at the same time, I had my usual job to carry out, including reading and commenting this chapter of the book!) and a quite long syllabus on Genetics, which is (…was :-)) not my field. Thus, preparing the exam required a very careful assessment of the task at hand, taking into consideration both goals and constraints. I had to plan my work in detail, apply various strategies to enact my plan, monitor my progress along the way, identify my weaknesses (e.g. unability to remember some concepts I studied), find out the reason(s) for them (e.g. insufficient concentration and/or repetition, wrong placement of the concept in my knowledge network/organisation and/or lack of edges connecting the concept to other concepts, lack of full understanding of the concept, etc.) and rework on them.

Given the little time available, I could not study all the topics the same way, namely, I had to establish priorities. Thus, I spent pretty much time in planning an appropriate approach, which consisted in choosing what I was expected to know accurately (i.e. be capable of repeating aloud and discussing), what I could “simply” understand (e.g. be able to read a paper on the topic without too much difficulty), and for which concepts a vague idea would have been sufficient.

I did a lot of monitoring of my own learning (e.g. by repeating concepts aloud while driving or having a shower, and preparing a long list of questions to answer as a first thing every morning in order to adjust the study of the day). So, I had the occasion to see the cycle of self-directed learning in action and reflected a lot on how to help students, based on the awareness that I was developing by reading this chapter and watching myself in the process of learning at the same time.

The chapter is really full of enlightening suggestions and cues for reflection.

One important thing instructors’ should be aware of is that students tend not to apply metacognitive skills as well and as often as they should.

As for many other aspects of learning/teaching, we tend to think that students learn the same way as we teachers do. A relevant merit of this book is to make readers aware of the huge difference between novices and experts in nearly all the aspects of learning, including prior knowledge, knowledge organisation, motivation, mastery development, and metacognition skills. Another important plus of this book concerns the large number of very concrete strategies proposed throughout the whole book.

As for this chapter, for each section, I identified a subset of strategies that I mean to include in future courses.

Assessing the task at hand.
I will try to be more explicit than usual about task assignments and will encourage students to not focus only on the finished product but also on the process.
I will also carefully check students’ understanding of the task by asking them to rewrite the main goal of the asignment in their own words and describe the steps they feel they need to take in order to complete that goal, as suggested in the book (I find this suggestion particularly wise and simple to apply).
As previously stated (in other blogs) I mean to develop and use performance rubrics in my courses. Also exam wrappers (Appendix F) and checklists (Appendix G) seem very helpful tools to make students understand instructors’ expectations and raise students’ awareness of the required elements of tasks. I believe that rubrics, exam wrappers and checklists would be an excellent support especially for high school teachers and I’ll will study how to propose these tools in our TtT course addressed to them.

Evaluating one’s own strengths and weaknesses
Despite providing feedback early in a course may be very helpful, teachers do it rarely. Moreover, most of the times, feedback consists in grades with little explanation of mistake types and of how to overcome them.
My suspicion is that providing frequent, timely and “stratified” feedback requires a lot of work and takes a lot of time. This implies that many instructors can’t actually provide it (think of classrooms with thirty students or more where a science teacher spends two hours a week). Therefore, it would be helpful to find ways to provide handy and quick feedback, without missing too much efficacy.

Planning an appropriate approach
Make planning the central goal of the assignment. This strategy is really good, especially to teach students how to approach the problem solving process. In most cases, a problem can be solved in several different ways and each person has to find his/her own path. Unfortunately, most students tend to start acting (writing, answering questions, ticking MC answers, etc) before planning any solution strategy. When I was a high school student, I remember that, in the writing class, we had to return essays preceded by a written scheme describing in detail the structure of our composition. This really forced us to think before acting.

For example:

Title: “How changes in the family structure are reshaping our society”
Introduction: in the introduction I will describe the main changes in the family structure occurred in the last century in Italy. In particular, I will describe the traditional family structure and its role in the society. I will also describe the most common current alternative family structures.
Development of the theme: …
Discussion: …
Conclusions: …

This approach turned out to be incredibly useful to write scientific papers and reports and, more in general, to not start writing without prior planning.

As for solving maths problems with my son, I force him to answer three questions before even to place the pen tip on the paper:
1) What is the unknown variable?
2) Which data are available and how are they connected to each other?
3) Write down 3-5 steps you plan to follow in order to solve the problem.

In any case, understanding the importance of planning and becoming able to effectively do it is a difficult, non-spontaneous process, in which instructors’ assistance and support is key.

Applying strategies and monitoring performance
Two further excellent strategies are: “Require students to reflect on and annotate their own work” and “Use peer review/reader response”. The former goes together with planning. Assignments should be preceded by accurate planning, annotated during the execution and followed by a report explaining what students did and why, how they responded to challenges etc.
It seems quite easy to implement.

The latter apparently requires a lot of work, especially to obtain that students take it seriously. To this aim, instructors have to imperatively give student reviewers specific criteria about what to look for and comment on, such as a set of questions to answer or a rubric to follow.

Beliefs about intelligence and learning
Broaden students’ understanding of learning. Here, concepts discussed in chapter 1 are recalled: learning and knowledge can operate on multiple levels. You can know something at one level (recognise it) but still not know it (know how to use it).

The diverse levels of knowledge are listed here more in detail:

  • ability to recall a fact, concept or theory (declarative knowledge)
  • knowing how to apply it (procedural knowledge)
  • knowing when to apply it (contextual knowledge)
  • knowing why it is appropriate in a particular situation (conceptual knowledge)

Introducing students to the various levels of knowledge may be extremely helpful. It is important to convince learners that “understanding” something does not imply “knowing” it, that being able to recall a fact, concept or theory, does not mean to be able to apply it, and that different tasks require different kinds of knowledge.
Providing students with questions stimulating them to think about the different levels of knowledge may raise their awareness and help them recognise which kind of knowledge they need to improve and which skills they have to practice more intensively.