Back to Learning | How to Learn about Learning

Defining the Big Problem

Most students are somewhat excited to get back to school and see their friends, begin new activities, and even to learn. However, once the novelty of the new school year wears off, many students tend to find themselves struggling with the same academic problems as the previous year, or years.

Little classroom time is spent teaching students how to go about learning, so they repeat the same behaviors and mistakes when it comes to their academic approach. This can lead to frustration and resistance to long-term learning. Even top academic students are vulnerable to counterproductive learning due to the pressure they put on themselves to get “good grades” in the short-term.

The good news is that students can turn this around pretty easily before they even begin their first day back to school. Much of the time students are grappling with managing their approach to academics rather than the material itself; and until they can define the specific problem, they won’t have the tools or means to change it. However, once the academic “diagnosis” is made, the remedy can be applied.

Diagnosing the Details

Summer is an excellent time for taking a break from formal learning. It can also give students perspective about their finished school year when it comes time to consider the next one. One way that students can prepare to get back to learning is to review their previous academic year and make an honest diagnosis of what worked for them and what didn’t. Doing this before the first day of school can help set the tone for avoiding the repetition of academic mistakes.

This diagnosis isn’t to identify which subjects they found hard or easy, but rather which of their learning approaches were effective and not effective. Students can start with listing one behavior for each. For example, if students feel they participated well in class then they can list that as an effective approach. More importantly, they should explain why it was effective and beneficial to their academics. Perhaps participating in class kept them engaged with the material so they absorbed more of it. This will give them a clear idea of which behaviors to continue for academic success.

The tougher task is naming a non-effective academic approach. Students may have trouble admitting to procrastination, missing due dates, misunderstanding assignments, and so on. Or they may not know exactly what approach they are taking that makes their learning counterproductive. Parents can help by not judging, and simply asking what didn’t go well the previous year or what they might like to change. Perhaps they want to be more organized in planning research papers, so they spend less time staring at a blank screen worrying about what to write. Or possibly they remember a missed deadline that resulted in a poor grade. Talking it through can bring clarity and a sense of ownership.

Future Reward

Once students clearly identify non-effective academic behaviors, they can figure out how to change them. There are a variety of resources that offer help, such as time management exercises and organization tutorials. The key is to understand that not diagnosing ineffective behaviors will only lead to their repetition. Behaviors and approaches can’t be changed until they are identified. This diagnosis sounds like end-of-summer homework, which can seem unfair. Yet taking time to identify effective and non-effective academic approaches before school starts can save students stress and frustration throughout the year and long-term. It will encourage them to make goals to improve their approach to learning, find resources to help change non-effective behavior, and take steps to becoming more effective in school years to come.