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May 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 8

Learning to Learn: Tips for Teens and Their Teachers

Many teens today don't have effective learning skills—and they need them more than ever.

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Last fall, 16-year-old Chris Fuller began studying for an upcoming unit exam in AP World History. A junior at Richard Montgomery High School outside of Washington, D.C., Chris went about learning the test material in a method students have used for decades: Open the test review packet, take a handful of bright highlighters, and begin marking up large swaths of the notes in blue, pink, and green.
Chris added neon flourishes and doodles—hand-drawn emojis of sorts—that correlated to portions of the text. In the section about rebellions and conflicts between Greeks and Persians, for instance, a tiny knife appeared next to the highlighted section title. In another area, Chris doodled the head of a woman. The end result? The elaborately highlighted packet looked like a piece of neon-bright graffiti art.
"I highlight and decorate my review materials like this for every quiz and test I take, except maybe math," noted Chris, who aspires to be a writer. But Chris was the first to admit it's unclear whether all this decorative highlighting enables effective learning, explaining, "It makes me feel better to have some colorful organization to my notes, like I'm focusing more. But I'm not sure any of it really helps me learn better. … Honestly, I feel like flashcards are a more productive way for me to learn the material."

Knowledge About Learning: Vital Yet Elusive

This student's struggle to develop skills of learning how to learn isn't unusual for teens—or for the teachers who teach them. Mastering the art of learning to learn is considered by many experts to be the most essential skill high schoolers can attain in our globally connected economy, where the abilities most needed for careers change constantly. That said, few teens know the basics of how to "learn to learn." And teachers rarely receive the necessary training to help their students become successful learners throughout school and life. Often, they promote learning methods not backed by research.
Consider the common misperception that richer learning occurs when teachers cater to specific learning styles, or the belief that some students gain competency by assimilating details visually, while others learn better by listening to information. Meager evidence exists to support these theories in the case of most students. One study by a team of psychologists all but debunked the notion that focusing on visual and/or auditory learning styles facilitates deeper learning (Pashler et al., 2008).
Rereading material is another unproductive but popular-among-teens method for gaining proficiency, as is copious highlighting of notes. Scant research suggests that either of these methods truly increases mastery (Dunlosky et al., 2013).

Seven "Learning to Learn" Takeaways

But there are well-supported techniques for gaining mastery, and adolescents—whether 11-year-olds or high school seniors—can learn those techniques. Knowing how to learn is particularly important for teenagers because they can do a lot of learning by themselves, with the right support. At the Learning Agency, which I founded in 2018, we've studied the science of learning and ways to help people develop the skill of "learning to learn." We've identified strategies that enable anyone to learn in-depth, strategies teachers can share with students. Below are seven takeaways from our work about giving teens the power to learn more effectively.

1. Learn by Doing

As Chris speculated, creating short- and long-form answer flashcards, then having to mentally retrieve the answer to the question on each card makes for more effective learning than highlighting a test-prep packet. Why? Well, learning is a highly active process, one that demands students make sense of the material confronting them. Teens must actively engage themselves to gain deeper mastery; learning must be a type of mental doing. Researchers call this idea "retrieval practice" or the "testing effect" (McDaniel et al., 2007).
Take Jennifer Martin, a senior at Victor High School near Rochester, New York. For most of her 12 years in public school, her go-to "learning method" was to sit in class, follow the teacher's discussions, and take notes. When test time drew near, Jennifer studied by reviewing her notes, skimming homework assignments, and rereading textbook chapters.
She learned the hard way that this passive approach often left her ill-prepared. During her sophomore year, Jennifer discovered a more effective way to understand new material or concepts. For her, it was about "connecting" with what she's learning. That connection came when she could explain her notes, textbook passages, or experiences, "talking it out with someone so it makes sense to the other person." She scored well on a chemistry exam last fall after deeply engaging with the material by talking it through with a peer.
Educators can encourage teens to adopt similar active learning techniques by role-modeling them and having kids try them in class. You might ask students to summarize what they've learned about a key concept in their own words—then share their ideas with another student, or a small group. It also helps to employ low-stakes quizzes. Informal exams facilitate substantial understanding, in part because students focus more on the material they've learned than on the test itself. All this encourages active versus passive learning.

2. Focus, Focus, Focus

Every time I visit a library, I see teens listening to music while studying. Tough as it might be for adolescents to put their playlists aside, it's a necessity if they want to learn effectively. Added stimuli like music places unwanted demands on a student's short-term memory, and when the short-term memory is bombarded with too much stuff, it can short out. As a result, less information is learned (Clark et al., 2006).
For most teenagers, limiting the demands on short-term memory is easier said than done. Most middle and high schoolers operate around-the-clock with a blitz of music, texts, YouTube videos, and more—while simultaneously attempting to study and master new ideas. The verdict is absolute, though: For teens to master a concept, they should limit their distractions. Yes, this means silencing their cell phones while they work, as well as staying away from Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media when studying. Research suggests that teachers should limit cell phone usage and have a clear policy (such as collecting cell phones and returning them at the end of class). Many students acknowledge that cell phones impair learning, but they either find checking their phones hard to resist or think they aren't distracted by their own phone use (Dietz & Henrich, 2014).

3. Think About Thinking

Every high school teacher has heard this post-exam comment from a teen who failed a test: "But I knew the material!" Like adults, many teens regularly misjudge how well they understand a concept. Adolescents can be naively overconfident about what they actually know. In other words, they have an issue with metacognition, or thinking about thinking.
Educators can play an important role in helping students master metacognition by encouraging teens to regularly monitor their own thoughts. Encourage teens to ask themselves questions like, Does this really make sense? If not, what terms or sections in this content aren't clear to me? Just what do I know about this subject? Teens who are effective learners reflect upon their own expertise. They make sure to know what exactly they know—and don't.

4. Find the Deep Features

More often than not, teens focus on surface features or concrete details of things. While surface features easily capture attention, studies indicate that more substantive forms of learning occur when students delve deeper to think about the underlying concept behind a problem (Schwartz et al., 2011).
Suppose a middle school math class is learning about combinations (the number of ways of combining a subset of objects into a group) and permutations (the number of ways of ordering a subset of objects) and an assignment has students create combinations of cars, dice, or ice cream flavors. What matters isn't the kinds of objects one is combining, but the deep structure—the underlying concepts of combination and permutation, so that's what we should encourage students to focus on.
A good way teens can focus on deep features is through "compare and contrast" exercises. Comparing and contrasting helps teens more easily spot connections within an area of mastery. To improve your snowboarding skills, for instance, watch YouTube clips about skateboarding and compare the skill sets needed in each sport. Teachers can facilitate such comparative thinking. If you want your 11th graders to better understand the issues facing transgender teens when it comes to use of locker rooms in their schools, for example, encourage them to read about the comparative struggles African American teenagers faced before and after the Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed school segregation.

5. Embrace Feedback

Although studies indicate that feedback—positive and negative—fosters improved learning, many teens understandably shy away from asking for it. The exposure inherent in any form of feedback can spur even confident teens to jokingly berate themselves while solving an equation on the blackboard. It keeps some teens from seeking any feedback at all. But teen learning outcomes improve dramatically when students ask a friend or teacher to review their efforts (Cutumisu et al., 2015).
To help teens welcome feedback, focus a student's attention on what she or he is doing well, then point out areas where practice is needed. Encourage students to jot down and evaluate their own mistakes and successes. Self-feedback is often the easiest kind to give and accept; it comes from oneself, after all. Teachers should also encourage students to seek feedback from friends or peers. This type of informal peer coaching is common in sports and can be helpful in academic pursuits as well.

6. Know Your Feelings

Mood swings connected to puberty are well documented. And emotional roller-coaster rides can make learning—a deeply emotional activity in itself—particularly problematic. When strong emotions surge through the brain, it's difficult to learn new skills or engage with complex concepts. It's critical, then, that teens address their feelings so they can better modulate their bubbling emotions. Simple techniques like counting to 10 before making an important decision or taking deep breaths when emotions surface make a large difference in how teens feel—and, therefore, learn.
Related to the centrality of emotions is research suggesting teens learn better in an environment that supports cognitive quiet, one where (among other things) they feel relaxed, regularly get enough sleep and exercise, and feel supported (Curcio et al., 2006). Practicing mindfulness meditation and staying connected to others can also help teens manage emotional states.
Jennifer says her AP Chemistry teacher gets this. He builds in breaks whenever his class is tackling a complex subject or has been taking notes for an extended period of time. "It allows us to just relax for five minutes," she says. "Some people use the bathroom. Some people go on their phones." These mini-breaks make a big difference. They give the adolescents a chance to refresh before they re-engage. Once the class reconvenes, she explains, "It's not dragging on. You're actually learning something."

7. Use the Fourth R

The three Rs—reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic—each carry an additional punch when paired with reflection. Students who take time to reflect on what they've learned can enjoy far greater levels of mastery. Whether a teen is attempting to grasp the concept of relativity or correct footwork for the high school tennis team, teenagers gain more if they contemplate their own learning.
Educators, coaches, and mentors can help teens gain the key skill of actively reflecting on their learning. They might suggest that teens ask themselves reflective questions like, What are my assumptions about what I'm doing? How has my thinking changed because of this lab experiment? What could I do next time to improve my lab practice?
Reflection also helps us remember what we've learned. In this sense, reflection helps spread learning out over time, allowing students to revisit skills and knowledge they previously learned. For instance, if an 11th grader has written a speech for an assignment in English class, he'll need time to revisit and reflect on the material at regular intervals to help him remember the words when the time comes to deliver it.

Mastering "Learning to Learn"

While these practices may seem out of reach for many teenagers, they are indeed acquirable skills, especially when adults help young people focus on them and offer support. Both Chris Fuller and Jennifer Martin are happy to have discovered more effective learning techniques. I've seen other adolescents use similar methods—and reap similar benefits.
This is good news for teens and educators. With a little guidance, regular application of these tips can make gaining improved learning skills a feasible goal for all our teen learners—and that's something they need now and in the future.

Clark, R. C., Nguyen, F., Sweller, J., & Baddeley, M. (2006). Efficiency in learning: Evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. Performance Improvement, 45(9), 46–47.

Curcio, G., Ferrara, M., & De Gennaro, L. (2006). Sleep loss, learning capacity and academic performance. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 10(5), 323–337.

Cutumisu, M., Blair, K. P., Chin, D. B., & Schwartz, D. L. (2015). Posterlet: A game-based assessment of children's choices to seek feedback and to revise. Journal of Learning Analytics, 2(1), 49–71.

Dietz, S., & Henrich, C. (2014). Texting as a distraction to learning in college students. Computers in Human Behavior, 36, 163–167.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students' learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58.

McDaniel, M. A., Anderson, J. L., Derbish, M. H., & Morrisette, N. (2007). Testing the testing effect in the classroom. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19(4–5), 494–513.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105–119.

Schwartz, D. L., Chase, C. C., Oppezzo, M. A., & Chin, D. B. (2011). Practicing versus inventing with contrasting cases: The effects of telling first on learning and transfer. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(4), 759–775.

End Notes

1 The student experiences in this piece are drawn from conversations with staff of The Learning Agency. Mary Ellen Murphy of The Learning Agency works in Montgomery County, Maryland, where she met and spoke with Chris Fuller (a pseudonym) about study habits. Murphy also interviewed Jennifer Martin (a pseudonym), a family friend, about her study practices.

Author bio coming soon

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