Using Psychology to Teach Your Students How to Learn

16 Sep 2019 5:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Danae L. Hudson, Ph.D., Missouri State University

As a graduate student, could you articulate the processes you use to learn? I’m definitely not talking about the “won’t-ever-die-myth of learning styles.” Instead, think about how you study. Why do you do what you do and where did you learn those approaches? I would guess that many of you would respond with, “I just figured it out along the way by what worked and what didn’t.” If we were to take a closer look, you probably utilize several evidence-based study strategies from learning/cognitive science. You are most likely engaging in some form of deep processing of the information, while connecting that information to previously learned material. You may have the best of intentions of spacing out your practice (whether that actually happens is another story, but you know that you should.) And, you have probably attempted to get your hands on any old/practice tests because you’ve learned that answering test questions helps prepare you for the exam. Prior to starting graduate school, did anyone ever specifically teach you how to study? Probably not. Now let’s remember, you’re in graduate school because you’ve demonstrated yourself to be bright and hardworking. You are not the average student……Being “the average” student isn’t bad, but as instructors, we often have to remind ourselves that our own experience is not representative of the average student’s experience. In most cases, students aren’t taught explicit study strategies or anything about how learning and memory works. Further, they often don’t have the experience of figuring it out on their own.

Should I Teach Learning Science in Every Course?

Yes. Part of our role as instructors involves teaching and modeling for students, important life skills. Most people would agree that teaching students how to think critically and evaluate information is at least as important as learning the content of your course. Discussing how memory works and how learning occurs is an important precursor to teaching good, evidence-based study skills. You might think, “Well, I teach an upper division course so surely these students know these principles already.” I can guarantee you that is mostly likely not the case. Even the strongest students will likely pick up something new when you present the information (just like you do when you go to a conference on a topic in your area of expertise).

How Should I Approach Teaching About Learning Science?

There are many approaches to teaching about learning science. It is best if you use a variety of methods spaced throughout the semester. In our Introductory Psychology program at Missouri State University, we use a combination of informal instruction (e.g., using learning science principles to illustrate other psychological concepts, one-on-one discussions with students) and traditional classroom activities and assignments to infuse learning science throughout the semester. Our students are exposed to the topic of learning science on the first day of class because improving students’ study skills is one of our course objectives! We explain that Introductory Psychology is a logical choice to tackle this important life skill because of the content of the course (e.g., including the topics of learning and memory) and because students typically take this course early in college.

Classroom Examples and Demonstrations

Whenever possible, we use examples from cognitive science to demonstrate difficult concepts. For example, I recently adapted Stephen Chew’s multitasking demo (the link to this demo is provided at the end of this blog) to explain some concepts associated with research design. While students learned about between-subjects and within-subjects designs, they also learned (by experiencing) that multitasking is nothing more than shifting attention and overall, quite inefficient.

A Study Skills Class

One week after the first exam in Introductory Psychology, we hold a “Study Skills Class” for students. The class is optional, but we really talk it up to students and give extra credit for attending. We typically have about 75% of our 330 students attend this class. The timing of this study skills class is important. You can’t offer it too early because students will think they don’t need it (due to poor metacognition). We have found after the first exam is a time when we have their attention and they still have plenty of time left in the semester to make changes. In this class we focus on the most important principles from learning science (e.g., strategies to enhance deep processing, retrieval practice, distributed practice) and give specific examples of how students could incorporate these strategies and apply it to their current class.

Additional Readings and Assignments

The textbook we use has a prologue chapter called “Learning How to Learn.” It is a brief chapter that addresses important concepts from learning science and provides students with practical advice to enhance their study skills. We assign this chapter and the accompanying quiz questions as extra credit that is due after the second exam.

A Midterm Wrapper

An exam wrapper is a post-exam assignment where students reflect on their performance with the goal of improving metacognition and subsequent grades. While the empirical literature is a little mixed regarding the efficacy of exam wrappers (e.g., LaCaille, LaCaille, & Maslowski, 2019; Pate, Lafitte, Ramachandran, & Caldwell, 2019; Soicher & Gurung, 2017), we have found a variant of this assignment to be a useful component to our class. Our midterm wrapper consists of students completing a worksheet detailing every grade they have in the class so far. They are asked to calculate their current grade and figure out how many points they would need to earn in the rest of the class to obtain their desired grade. We also ask about their current study skills and if they are unhappy with their performance so far, ask them to commit to trying something new before the next exam. This is a required assignment but worth a very small percentage (i.e., 0.5%) of the students’ overall course grade.

Individual Student Meetings

We have all experienced the student in our office who says, “I studied for hours and thought I did really well on the exam, but I got a D.” I always use these opportunities to discuss the concept of metacognition with students. I explain that what they experienced was a “metacognitive failure” (it sounds dramatic and gets their attention). I use this time with the student to discuss evidence-based study strategies that can help improve metacognition. I ask students to commit to trying some of these strategies in preparing for the next exam and to let me know how it worked for them. I warn them that these strategies take practice, so it will take time to develop their skills. Students often do seek me out later to let me know that what they did “worked!” For me, these are the moments that remind me of the value we, as educators, bring to students’ lives.

Regardless of your background in psychology, I hope this blog has convinced you of the importance of bringing the principles from learning/cognitive science into each and every course you teach. If you are interested in the multitasking demo I described and other lesson plans for improving student study skills, please see this document prepared by Stephen Chew and Guy Boysen. This document is part of the many resources available as part of the Fall Pilot from APA’s Introductory Psychology Initiative (IPI). The goal of the IPI is to have instructors from a variety of institutions involved in implementing the new Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) and their assessments in their Introductory Psychology classes. Initially, we will be collecting data from these instructors and their students about their experience with the student learning outcomes. If you’d like more information, or would like to be involved in an upcoming pilot of the program, please visit


LaCaille, R. A., LaCaille, L., & Maslowski, A. (2019). The effect of exam and quiz wrappers on metacognition, learning perceived competence, and course performance in online undergraduate psychology courses. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology.

Pate, A., Lafitte, E. M., Ramachandran, S., & Caldwell, D. J. (2019). The use of exam wrappers to promote metacognition. Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning11, 492-498.

Soicher, R. N., & Gurung, R. A. (2017). Do exam wrappers increase metacognition and performance? A single course intervention. Psychology Learning & Teaching16, 64-73.

Danae Hudson is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Missouri State University. She teaches large sections of Introductory Psychology in addition to other clinical psychology undergraduate and graduate courses. Dr. Hudson is the Graduate Program Director for Clinical Psychology at MSU, serves as the Director of Teaching Resources for the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP), and is a member of APA’s Introductory Psychology Initiative committee. She is the co-author of Revel Psychology 1e published by Pearson Education.

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