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Do students know what learning looks and feels like?

Do students know what learning looks and feels like?

4 min read
  • The science of learning

Students typically spend at least 13 years in education. It would be easy to assume that by the end of this period, they know exactly what they are doing when it comes to learning.

However, research has shown time and time again that students tend to prefer the least effective study methods because of misconceptions about what learning really means.

So, why is this the case? And more crucially, what can you do to help your students avoid these pitfalls? Firstly, let’s take a look at the research, and then look at how you can help your students change their views of learning for the better…

What the research says

An interesting recent study looked at whether students’ views of their learning align with their academic achievement.

The researchers split students into two groups: one had lessons with passive learning techniques (e.g., a lecture with no interruption) and the other group had lessons that used active learning techniques (e.g., discussing answers in small groups and sharing with the class). Afterward, they took a survey on how they felt about the lesson and completed a multiple-choice test on what they learned.

The results showed that the students who experienced active learning had higher achievement on the multiple-choice tests than the passive learning group. However, the active learning students rated their lessons as less enjoyable and less productive than the passive learning group.

This is yet more evidence that students’ perception of their learning doesn’t match reality, putting them at risk of making less-than-ideal learning choices. This is reminiscent of this study, which showed the gap between students’ feelings toward Retrieval Practice vs re-reading and the actual results of either strategies.

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How to help your students learn more effectively

With more insight into how students perceive learning and the methods that they believe are the most effective, we can clearly see that their views don’t align with their academic outcomes. Even when students think passive learning is more effective, it doesn’t mean that it actually works for them.

So, here are some strategies that you can use in your classroom to help your students positively transform their outlook on learning…

Incorporate active learning into lessons

It is worth considering how to best incorporate active learning into lessons. There is not set (or arguably optimal) way to do this. This means it will always come down to a judgement call based on teacher expertise, experience and knowing their students/topics. they need to know. Research supports active learning in the classroom to help students make progress.

Within the previously mentioned study, students labelled active classes as disjointed and confusing. To them, the learning may feel ‘messy’.

But this “messiness” is what makes it effective: pausing the flow of a lesson to engage students in active learning tasks such as debates, Think, Pair, Share and reviewing is vital for them to solidify their knowledge. Then, when students have successful outcomes, they will see the value of active learning for boosting their progress both inside and outside the classroom.

Teach students that putting in effort is effective

A lot of students tend to take the path of least resistance, which means that they seek learning strategies that use the least amount of effort. However, these same strategies tend to be the least effective despite being rated by students as the most enjoyable. This explains why the students in the study we looked at earlier rated passive lessons as more enjoyable, even when they had worse outcomes.

Thankfully, there is a light at the end of the tunnel here: in the study, students felt more positively about active learning when they were aware of the evidence showing that active learning leads to better results. So, to motivate your students to put the effort in, you can explain the benefits of active learning and reassure them that thinking hard about content means that they are learning.

Encourage students to use metacognitive strategies

We saw that the students in the study mistakenly assessed how well they learned by considering how fluent the lesson felt over their ability to actually remember the content. This could indicate poor metacognition and metacognitive skills, harming their ability to recognise incorrect judgements of their own learning.

Now, metacognition isn’t just a buzzword – it is a powerful concept that helps students evaluate their current thought processes so that they can improve. So, by helping students develop metacognitive strategies such as setting goal setting and self-questioning, they can better evaluate how well they are learning and seek active learning techniques to support their progress.

Final thoughts

Students’ views of what learning looks and feels like can influence how well they study and can have a major impact on their results.

So, taking this guidance on board can help your students have a more accurate outlook on learning, which will encourage them to adopt more productive study habits and bring them closer to achieving their goals.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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