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A System for Learning How to Learn

One of the most difficult attributes required to be an effective student is learning how to learn. As nebulous as that attribute sounds, it’s not strictly theoretical. As part of our Executive Function curriculum here at Staying Ahead of the Game,  we walk students through a series of discussions, exercises, and challenges to both discern the best way for them to learn and to design systems that put their learning preferences at the forefront.

Step #1: Take Responsibility

Primarily, students must remember who bears the responsibility of adaptation in the modern-day classroom. The average classroom, whether in a public or private school, has anywhere from eighteen to thirty students, but only one teacher. To complicate matters even more, this singular teacher often teaches other sections of the same course or even a course in a different subject, not to mention administrative burdens. Yes, students have several classes of their own, too. But the teacher’s primary responsibility is to ensure that the content is accessible to all. In other words, it is not the teacher’s responsibility, or simply as a practical matter, to fine-tune and design the delivery of content to the individual students. Instead, the student must find a way to get the material to stick, to design systems to enhance learning in an optimized and, dare I say, interesting way.

So, if students acknowledge that they bear the responsibility of adjusting to the course and to the teacher, how exactly does the student do that?

Step #2: Develop Awareness

Often, the best way to help a student learn how to learn is to encourage self-reflection. Students should reflect on the classes they enjoyed most, the classes where they earned the best grades to learn what systems worked well for them. For instance, was the subject matter naturally interesting? Did the teacher encourage hands-on practice as part of classroom instruction? Did the student explore the subject matter through conversations with friends and family, or via popular media? Did the student have friends in the class that bolstered motivation and accountability?

All of these questions are essential to figuring out what works for the individual student in the classroom, at home, and during exam week. Some students prefer a hands-on approach where they sort through the content of the class via trial and error. Others prefer to learn the big picture theories first so that they have a roadmap when application becomes more difficult. Some students like teachers who challenge them to think on their feet while others prefer teachers who encourage learning at one’s own pace and asking questions as needed. Not every class is the same and not every teacher is the same, but that’s a good thing. If every single class and teacher were taught in the same way, students would suffer in more ways than one.

After analyzing strengths, students should perform a similar analysis with subjects that they found boring and subjects where they did not perform well. Then, students should consider if there are any commonalities to how they learn and develop outside the realm of academia. In sports, music, and myriad other extra-curricular activities, students can analyze what works and what doesn’t work in their individual learning process.  The right questions can unlock this treasure trove of data.

Step #3: Develop a Toolkit

After taking responsibility for their learning and reflecting on their learning history, students should put pen to paper on their “learning toolkit”. Here, we want to turn all those insights from the reflection period into clear, actionable tools to adapt to new classes and new teachers. For example, a fictional student (Elliot) might notice that he thrives in lecture-based classes where the teacher spends time explaining the big picture before diving into the details. Elliot might also notice that his best classes last year were English and history because they read All Quiet on the Western Front and covered WWI and WWII. Some of his favorite movies are war classics so he had a natural interest in the storyline. Lastly, Elliot might notice that he was drastically more motivated when he had friends in the class who were motivated to succeed. He might also realize that he was more motivated to succeed in the class because he developed a rapport with the teacher early on by attending office hours.

Great! We know no what Elliot needs to succeed in history and English, but how do we use this data in a completely different class (chemistry) with a completely different teacher?

We develop our learning toolkit by broadening the scope of everything we learned in History and English class. For instance, Elliot’s toolkit might look something like this:

  • Get the big picture before diving into the details
  • Attend office hours regularly and try to establish a connection with the teacher
  • Find entertaining ways to connect with the material through movies and tv shows
  • Spend time with classmates who are motivated to succeed
  • At the end of each chapter, condense the information learned into three key ideas

Step #4: Apply & Adjust

Elliot might not love chemistry right away, but, if he uses the tools that helped him in English and history, he’s a lot better off than some of his classmates. This method of taking insights from past experiences and turning them into actionable goals helps students build autonomy. Rather than chalking every success or failure up to genetics or difficulty with the teacher, students always have something that is within their control.

Learning how to learn is just one component of our unique Executive Function curriculum. For more ideas on learning or other key EF topics, please check out our blog. If your child could benefit from one-on-one academic coaching, please reach out today to learn more about our services.

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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