Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

November 23, 2016

Teaching at Pitt

An instructor recently expressed how disappointed he was with students after tallying the results of the first exam. “They are in college now,” he lamented. “They should know how to study!”

Faculty frequently comment that students do not devote the needed time or effort in their courses to succeed. A 2013 study by the Higher Education Research Institute found that 58.6 percent of first-year students spent fewer than six hours per week on homework in their senior year of high school, yet 98.6 percent of those surveyed graduated from high school with an A or B average. Some students may be used to earning good grades without applying themselves, but there are strategies that faculty can adopt to help students learn how to learn.

Saundra McGuire, author of “Teach Students How to Learn,” believes that students don’t spend the time needed on their courses because they don’t know how to engage with materials in ways that will produce results. She recommends that instructors present students with methods that have been proven to increase learning. This advice comes with one caveat; instead of using the term study skills, McGuire refers to these practices as metacognitive strategies, supported by evidence from cognitive psychology. Such strategies can be distributed as a handout and discussed prior to the first assignments.

To engage students with the readings, McGuire tells students to follow three strategies:
1. Preview the material. Read the titles, headings, anything in bold or italics, and any charts or graphs. This simple practice provides the big picture and cognitive placeholders for further information.

2. Based on the preview, develop questions that the reading might be able to answer. Questions might be about unfamiliar words, the relationships among concepts or about an unfamiliar process.

3. Read one paragraph, then stop and paraphrase that paragraph. Read the next paragraph, then stop and paraphrase that paragraph, incorporating the information from the first paragraph. Each paragraph should build upon the previous paragraphs.

Students who follow this process report they have a deeper understanding of what they have read.

Most instructors acknowledge that one of the best ways to learn a new topic is to teach it, yet this approach is rarely used with students. Teaching a subject requires higher levels of cognitive processing than memorizing information. A computer science instructor was concerned because her English as a Second Language (ESL) students were having difficulty completing the required readings during the shorter summer session. Each reading contained concepts needed for the development of the final project. She found students struggling with the amount of decoding necessary, so she decided to use the jigsaw strategy, a cooperative learning technique.

The computer class was divided into small groups. Each group was assigned a different reading that they were expected to teach to the rest of the class. Students read their assignment, and then discussed the reading within their assigned groups where they answered each other’s questions and rehearsed their presentation. Next, the groups were scrambled so that one person from each group made up their new group.

     Reading Groups

AAA        BBB         CCC


   Teaching Groups

        ABC        ABC           ABC

Students within each of the new groups taught their materials to the others in their group and distributed a quiz to ensure understanding.

Jigsaw groups are an efficient way to learn new material. Once in the teaching groups, each student must actively listen and rely upon the others to learn new information. For the computer class, the jigsaw minimized the amount of reading required, yet the students still learned the concepts and were able to complete their projects.

Asking students to develop sets of questions that assess the main ideas is another way to have students engage more with the materials.

When a sociology instructor asked his students to write study questions as a practice activity for the exam, he was dismayed to discover the gap in skill between the students’ low level of questions and the questions he had prepared. The instructor immediately postponed the exam and presented a short lesson on Bloom’s taxonomy, a hierarchy of thinking skills. Using the theory of differential association as an example, the instructor demonstrated the levels of questions that could evaluate how well students understood the theory. Students then revised their study questions to reflect the higher skill levels.

Cheryl Messick, a faculty member in the Department of Communication Science and Disorders, also teaches Bloom’s taxonomy to her students. “Students are surprised by the notion that you can ask questions to assess different knowledge levels,” she explained. For many students, introducing Bloom’s demonstrates why they need to study differently in order to achieve the levels of critical thinking that faculty want. McGuire recommends that faculty take a four-step approach when teaching Bloom’s:

1. Have students define the difference between studying and learning.

2. Ask students if they would study harder to make an A on a test or to teach the materials to the class.

3. Present Bloom’s taxonomy, explaining each level of the hierarchy and then applying Bloom’s to a simple example.

4. Ask students at what level of Bloom’s have they been operating and at what level do they need to be operating now.

When you incorporate learning strategies into your teaching, you provide students with tools that they need to succeed. Once students reap the rewards of their increased effort, they also learn a powerful lesson: Abilities are not fixed, but can be continually improved upon with time and the proper effort.

Carol Washburn is the manager of teaching and learning at the Teaching Center.

Leave a Reply