Helping Your Students Become Successful Learners

Have you heard students say “I feel like I understand the material” even when they did poorly on a test? Or, “I studied for hours” but their grades don’t reflect that work? Here are some ways to help!

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Getting started

When your student comes to you because they are not doing as well as they would like to, or if you seek them out, start by finding out how they are studying. Try asking:

  • How did you study in high school?
  • How are you studying now?

In many cases, the students will answer both questions the same way: they read over notes and/or a study guide that they have been given.

If this is the answer, then the problem is in how they are working outside of your class.

Rereading is a waste of valuable study time. It tricks a student into thinking that they understand the material while they are actually simply familiar with it. This is why students will often say that they thought they understood the material. Furthermore, even if rereading did successfully allow a student to understand information, understanding is not the level at which college students are typically tested. Instead, students are expected to operate at higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, the critical thinking levels.

Students new to college typically have little or no preparation for how to study at learning levels higher than knowing and understanding Bloom’s Taxonomy. It is up to you to teach them.

College level teaching and learning

The following are several methods for operating at higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy for your students, for your course design. You probably do some of these and have other strategies that are not listed. Please add to our list by emailing the CTL.

Quick suggestions for your students

Students will do better in a class if you can redirect them from passive studying to a metacognitive study style, where they consider and work on improving their own learning process. Here are a few suggestions of strategies for students:

  • Write down a list of questions while reading and preparing for class to be answered during class (and make sure the questions get answered).
  • Take notes by hand, not on an electronic device.
  • At the end of each class, summarize in words what was learned and write follow-up questions to answer while studying.
  • Set goals for each study session, asking why, how and what if questions.
  • Answer questions and meet goals in bursts of studying followed by brief breaks.
  • Prepare and present short lessons on material that are challenging.
  • Write test questions throughout the week and take the test each weekend.
  • Each weekend, reflect on what went well in studying, what could go better and changes to make for the following week.

Helping students change

Like any change, letting go of ineffective study habits and replacing them with more effective ones is very challenging. One way to help students change is to help them track their improvement when they make changes through frequent quizzes and assignments. Evidence of studying such as written questions can also be a part of the course grade. You do not have to grade everything that a student hands in or that you look at, it is often sufficient to simply check items off as done. Also, remember that even if you start the semester by requiring and looking at the homework, you do not have to continue to do so for the entire semester.

Fostering motivation

A motivated classroom is one in which students believe success is possible, they value the material and they feel supported in their learning. Good motivation leads to positive feelings about a class, and successful learning opportunities. Here are a few suggestions for motivating a class:

  • Assign small doable assignments, or break large assignments into small ones, so that students can be successful.
  • Know how your students are doing and make adjustments.
  • Apply content through experiential learning opportunities.
  • Set up the class so that students feel supported by their peers through group work.
  • Help encourage a growth mindset.

Aligning outcomes to your expectations

When designing your course, begin with the outcomes, what you want your students to walk away with at the end of the semester, lesson or class. Here are suggestions for writing outcomes that encourage higher level thinking:

  • Write content outcomes that are at the levels that you expect. You probably want your students to know new terms and definitions, and also apply them, synthesize them, analyze them, etc. Your outcomes should reflect that range.
  • Some of your outcomes may have to do with “soft skills” or habits of mind. Identifying obstacles to learning such as reading critically or learning independently are one method for writing these sorts of outcomes.
  • Don’t be afraid to dream big.

Sometimes, faculty are resistant to sharing learning outcomes with students. This approach systematically penalizes students with little background in college level learning such as many of our first generation college students. They are the ones that are least likely to come to your class with prior experience in college level expectations. Making your expectations clear makes it more likely that all of your students will find success; it’s like providing a bullseye in an archery competition.

Flipping the classroom

One of draws of the inverted, or flipped, class is that the initial knowledge work is delivered prior to the class meeting through short online video introductions and readings. The class time is then an opportunity for critically thinking about content, which may better align with your expectations of students.

Responding to struggling students

Once the semester has started, you may quickly recognize which students are struggling. One way to intervene is to set a time in the semester, perhaps during the third or fourth week, to discuss learning strategies with the class as a whole. Another approach is to call or meet once with each struggling individual privately outside of class. During that individual meeting, you may be able to learn about the student’s time management, study habits and motivation and then redirect as needed.

If it is challenging to sort out which students are struggling early in the semester, then you may wish to create a short pre-test, or other assignment relevant to your discipline, in order to assess a students readiness for your class. 

Not all problems can be solved

There are barriers to student learning over which we have no control. Sometimes these barriers can be addressed by guiding a student to get additional help, but other times students leave our classes and we are not sure why. Sometimes, we are unable to even contact the struggling student to help. Nonetheless, intervening even once during a semester may help one or two struggling students and to each of them, your effort makes all of the difference.

Here are some resources to guide students to when needed:

Additional content help
- Math/Science Tutoring Center
- Writing Center
Time management
- refocus study time away from rereading
- time management tools e.g. in the back of the Student Handbook
Overextended, disinterested, changing plans, absentAdvisor/Career & Advising Services 
Mental health and wellbeingStudent Counseling

References and further reading

Contact Information

Center for Teaching and Learning

Meriwether Lewis Hall 320

500 8th Avenue

Lewiston, Idaho 83501