by Cory Budischak
Energy Management Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

Welcome to the conclusion of my synopsis of How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose et al. If you missed the first six posts, you can catch up here. In this last post in the series, I’ll look at the final principle offered in the book: To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning. As in previous posts, I’ll start by summarizing the authors’ analysis of this principle based on three questions. After that, I’ll address a fourth question of my own: How do I plan to incorporate this into my own instruction?

1. What are examples of learning issues that this principle can address?

These are the two examples from the book:

I was exhausted from reading and grading twenty-five papers over the past weekend, but I was glad to be able to hand them back so quickly. It was the first big assignment in my freshman seminar on immigration, and it required students to state an argument and support it with evidence from course readings and supplemental documents. After class, one of the students, Melanie, approached me and insisted that she needed to talk with me immediately about her grade (not about her paper, mind you!). Hers was a typical first paper in this course–it lacked a clearly articulated argument, and there was only weak evidence to support what I inferred was her argument. As we walked across campus toward my office, she began explaining that she was a “gifted” writer who had always received As on her high school English papers. She made clear to me that there must be some mistake in this paper’s grade because her mother, a high school English teacher, had read the paper over the weekend and thought it was wonderful. Melanie admitted that she had started this assignment the night before it was due, but insisted that she worked best under pressure, saying, “That’s just how my creative juices flow.”


After I saw John’s grade on the second Modern Chemistry exam, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “How can someone attend every single lecture–sitting attentively in the front row–and go to every recitation and lab, no less, and still do so poorly on my exams?” I had explicitly told the students that my exams are designed to test conceptual understanding, and yet John seemed to be thrown for a loop. His first exam score had also been pretty low, but he wasn’t alone in that, given students’ first exam jitters. By this time, however, I thought he would have learned what to expect. I asked John what had happened, and he too seemed perplexed. “I studied for weeks,” he said flipping open his textbook. I could hardly believe how much of the text was highlighted. The pages practically glowed with neon yellow. He went on to describe how he had re-read the relevant chapters multiple times and then memorized various terms by writing their definitions on flashcards. I asked where he had learned this approach to studying, and he explained that it had always worked for him when he used to prepare for his science tests in high school.

2. What does research say about this principle?

Figure 7.1 sums up the research about this principle.

Cory Budischak - Figure 7.1

This figure shows how students should apply a metacognitive process to their learning cycle. While the whole cycle is important and discussed at length in the book, I want to focus on the middle of the cycle, “Students’ beliefs about intelligence and learning”. When I first read this chapter this passage struck me:

In addition to the many ways in which these processes can overlap and interact with each other, students’ beliefs about intelligence and learning (such as whether learning is quick and easy or slow and effortful) represent a factor that can influence the whole cycle in a variety of ways.

The book shows study after study that provides evidence that student performance can be affected by their belief about intelligence and learning. For example, students that think intelligence is fixed or that learning is quick and easy tend to perform worse than students who think intelligence is malleable or learning is slow and effortful. This misconception is such a problem that The Khan Academy made this awesome video to combat the issue:

3. How can instructors teach with this principle in mind?

These are the strategies the book suggests (all are headings from the book):

  • Assessing the task at hand
    • Be more explicit than you may think necessary
    • Tell students what you do not want
    • Check students’ understanding of the task
    • Provide performance criteria with the assignment
  • Evaluating one’s own strengths and weaknesses
    • Give early, performance-based assessments
    • Provide opportunities for self-assessment
  • Planning an appropriate approach
    • Have students implement a plan that you provide
    • Have students create their own plan
    • Make planning the central goal of the assignment
  • Applying strategies and monitoring performance
    • Provide simple heuristics for self-correction
    • Have students do guided self-assessments
    • Require students to reflect on and annotate their own work
    • Use peer review/reader response
  • Reflecting on and adjusting one’s approach
    • Provide activities that require students to reflect on their performances
    • Prompt students to analyze the effectiveness of their study skills
    • Present multiple strategies
    • Create assignments that focus on strategizing rather than implementation
  • Beliefs about intelligence and learning
    • Address students’ beliefs about learning directly
    • Broaden students’ understanding of learning
    • Help students set realistic expectations
  • General strategies to promote metacognition
    • Modeling your metacognitive processes
    • Scaffold students in their metacognitive processes

4. How do I plan to incorporate this into my instruction?

This semester I am teaching an Energy Investment Analysis course that requires writing a report based on a investment situation they analyze. To scaffold students’ learning, I plan on having them submit rough drafts of this report before the final draft is due. In the past, I have not required students to reflect on or annotate the drafts after receiving my feedback, but this time such reflection will be required this time. I also started this course with three assessments that are meant to be a review for the students. I am thinking about having the students also come up with a plan/outline for the paper they write and making that a graded assignment.

What about you? How do you help students become self-directed learners? Let me know by commenting on this post below.

This is the last post in my series about How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose et. al. Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed these posts, I would highly recommend picking up the book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *