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Are We Teaching Our Students How to Learn?

As a learning specialist, I have observed that many students learn concepts in school and either promptly forget what they learned or cannot apply it to any situation or problem outside of the way in which they learned it. This has brought up the question whether students are actually learning or are they simply learning material to reproduce it on a test or to get a good grade on their homework? Most students aren't actually taught how to learn, just what they need to learn. What if students were actually taught how to learn? How would our education system benefit?More importantly how would our students benefit?

Through no fault of their own, schools are pressured to produce students with good grades and high test scores. Without diving into the fact that standardized test were not created for all students (they greatly benefit caucasian students), most of these tests don't actually prove anything about our students. Many teachers feel immense pressure for their students to do well on these tests so they teach to the test instead of to our students. Even so, students who can afford a private tutor often seek outside tools to boost their scores. Most tutors will teach these students tricks about the tests and how to approach the tests. These students are taught HOW to take the test. Imagine if all of our students were taught HOW to learn best. Don't you think everyone's grades and test scores would automatically increase?

How our brains learn is almost a secret in the school system. Most schools teach material, test on the material, then move on. A conveyor belt of information going into our brains and immediately after the test, a conveyor belt of information out of our brains to make room for more information. Rinse and repeat.

Many teachers try and encourage students to retain their learning with pop quizzes yet many students fail these. Why is that? Well, for one, many students probably did not correctly learn and consolidate the material. Secondly, many students have testing anxiety which is obviously heightened when students are asked to do pop quizzes. A shocking announcement such as a surprise test may trigger adrenaline and cortisol in student's brains and depending on how they handle that stress, it is quite possible that their memory center, the hippocampus, will temporarily shut down to deal with the increase of cortisol now pumping through their body. Once you consider the fact that many students, especially in public schools have trauma, you will understand that their already cortisol drenched brains are going to have a hard time accurately retrieving the information they learned but probably did not send to long term memory.

So, how can teachers better increase learning while decreasing the stress of displaying one's learning? Projects are a fantastic way for students to both consolidate and apply their newly gathered knowledge. Investigations and inquiry based learning is another way that students can demonstrate their understanding without having to take a test. I promise you that there are much better ways for students to learn and retain what they learn, you just need to think outside of the box that the education system has placed you in.

My main suggestions are as follows: show students how to make connections in their learning. The brain is always looking for connections and how it can use the stuff it already knows to incorporate the new concepts. Use mind mapping to encourage connections and visually representing how the information is connected. No matter what age, hands on learning will bolster learning much more than anything abstract. While we are on the topic of abstract, ALL CONCEPTS NEED TO BE CONCRETE BEFORE THEY CAN BE ABSTRACT NO MATTER HOW OLD YOU ARE.

Schools and teachers are doing the absolute best that they can, especially during a global pandemic but we need to teach our students how to learn. All students deserve to have a deep toolbox of learning strategies and tools that they can use throughout their educational career.

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