Do we need to be taught how to learn?

All the way through my early years of education and college, I took to learning the material in my classes through repetition and rote memorization. After about a year and a half into my master’s degree, I realized I was never learning to understand but simply just memorizing the material. This was a huge detriment to my knowledge base because I basically memorized for an exam and subsequently forgot everything. Now that I am having to use some of the material from my undergraduate classes for my research, I am having to go back and re-learn “the right way”. I really began to see the difference in learning methods when I came to VT for my Ph.D. I had to take a few deficiency courses to graduate with an Engineering degree, which was mostly math courses. In undergrad, these courses were very hard for me and I just thought I wasn’t very good at math. But now that I had to go back and take additional courses, I tried actually learning the material by understanding. I was listening in class and actually taking the time to understand why something was a certain way The ridiculous part is that I was studying for significantly less time and doing really well in the class. There were times that I didn’t study at all and got a top score. It was amazing to me. After employing this new found method (to me, anyway) it was like a light bulb went off in my head.

Ellen Langer in “Mindful Learning” suggests that this phase I was in and broke out of may be rooted in the way we teach and are taught from a really young age. She states that being taught to repeat information to learn at a young age may instill in people that this is THE way to learn. I can attest that this was how I was taught to learn by both my teachers and parents. Probably the worst example of this comes from my high school biology class. The professor would give us a set of 150 multiple choice questions to study from and he would choose 50 to be on the exam. I was so good at recognizing patterns, I didn’t even read the problem on exam day and just circled the answer based on the answer choices and usually the first couple words of the question. I always finished first, usually in about 5 minutes, and always got the top score. But I didn’t learn anything, at least not for the long term.

How many people go through this and what does it say about our education system? To me, it seems that how we learn to learn is instilled in us at a very young age. If someone learns to learn by memorizing and are simply tested on knowing the material, that person may never break that habit. I was only able to break that habit by staying in school past undergrad. We need to make students think by challenging their knowledge base. Using exams to test their knowledge only enforces rote memorization.  Adding more and more exams further enforces that because they have so much to know for the next exam, they simply memorize to get through it and then forget.



10 Replies to “Do we need to be taught how to learn?”

  1. I can definitely relate to your experience, Deb! Sometimes I wonder if one class would be enough to break students of the habit. Seems like departments would need to create a culture within the faculty where this type of teaching was an expectation across the board. When I think about professors at universities, most of them likely have lots of technical training but unless they were in a program like we’re in, no one taught them how to teach well. It’s not like most advisors want you to take up “all your valuable research time” by learning how to be a good faculty member… Likely, most professors are doing what their own professors did because there’s a mindset of “I learned this way, my students can learn this way too”. Some professors may not even realize what you have – that they actually had to relearn much of what they thought they’d learned in undergrad because the teaching method didn’t help them actually learn. A learning mindset doesn’t just start with the students, it has to come from the faculty as well.

    1. This is interesting, I never really thought about the fact that most professors need to relearn the material before they teach it. I have had a few tell me this but I never thought about what that means in terms of their own education. A lot of professors have said also that they learned the material better when they taught it. Maybe that means we should have students teach a class at the end of each semester?

  2. I think that you make an excellent point that the more exams a student is facing the more likely that they will be to simply “cram” some memorized facts and move on to the next assessment. I certainly see this often with the students I work with. They certainly feel too pressed for time to explore, play with, or enjoy the material that they are learning. Honestly, I have found this to be true in my own life at numerous times. What are your thoughts about possible methods to change this pattern?

    1. I think the best way we can combat this is by slowing down in class and letting students work with the material in class. Additionally, we can do less on paper exams and do more projects. This will allow students to work with the material and learn some creative thinking skills that traditional classes sorely lack

  3. Hi Deb,

    While reading your post, I was thinking of the difference between classes I enjoyed and classes I dreaded. I was definitely on the rote memorization train for the bulk of the latter. And the further along I got, the more I realized this practice was hurting me rather than helping me. So when it really clicked for me in a class was Statistics 1 during my master’s. I knew that it would either be my biggest struggle or triumph to date and it all depended on how I approached it. I am lucky I had a teacher that was really good at teaching Stats, but still… the motivation to want to know how to do my own stats for research was what drove me. By the end I was saying crazy things like “this is fun!” or “that wasn’t so bad!” and I still “get” Stats, even if I do need a formula cheat sheet or guide to get started.

    I agree with everyone in this thread that we have to figure out ways to inspire our students to want to know this stuff for themselves. For me, it took a teacher making the class relevant in my life by setting up problems that I could hold on to conceptually. Like Meredith emphasized, it is so important for us to break out of our learned bad habits in teaching and strive for creating an environment that engages curiosity and intrinsic motivation.

  4. Totally agree with you! I have had the enforces rote memorization method in my high school and undergrad, and that was not useful way for learning, but when I started my graduate studies, I realized how I can learn through best ways and methods.

  5. I enjoyed reading your blog and unfortunately can relate to some of the same learning experiences. Fortunately, I attended a small college for undergrad where professors cared more about their students than research and publishing. I wish my daughters (students at VT) had more professors and TAs that structured their classes like the one we are in. One of my daughters is a science major and is constantly memorizing and testing with very little of the 21st century skills she needs for real life – collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communicating. I’m not sure how professors who have horrible ratings get to keep “teaching” when they are really only “testing” material they’ve had in a file for 20 years. At the very minimum, they could put the kids in groups and let them help each other, especially if they are not willing to help them. Thankfully, my daughters have also had some great professors and remain dedicated Hokies!

  6. Hi Dep,
    I could relate to your experience. I study engineering. Majority of my and science engineering classes were taught through pure lecturing. The role of the teacher in those classes was mainly transmitting knowledge to students through a top-down approach and then examine students’ learning through well-structured problems with given parameters that are stated, and the students are asked to find the correct solution. Last year I took a course in engineering education. In that course, I learned many theories about how people learn engineering and I found it very helpful in preparing me to learn and teach engineering. My answer to your title question, yes, especially for educator

  7. I agree! Learning to memorize test questions and answers starts very early. I remember in grade school, we had a standardized test for reading comprehension every year. Each year the questions and answers were exactly the same and even appeared in the same order. After a while, I didn’t even really read them, I just circled the right answer. We have to change the conventional method of teaching to something that encourages learning and application, not memorization.

  8. I agree 100 percent that we are taught via rote learning and memorization at an early age. Some things should be taught that way but over time students need to be taught with a deeper understanding of material. I do know that things have changed related to teaching styles and techniques since I was in elementary school. Before, I learned to just memorize material but now that my children are in school they are being taught using games and hands on activities. My sons agree that it makes it easier to remember how to do things over time when they have an experience to relate the problem or information to. I am a hands on person myself as well as a visual learner so I try to link the material I am learning to something I won’t forget.

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