Linda B. Nilson, Ph.D.

Linda B. Nilson, Ph.D. is an Internationally-Known Keynote Speaker, Workshop Designer/Leader, and Author on College Teaching, Scholarly Writing, and Academic Career Development.

The Top Ten Reasons Why We Have to Teach Our Students How to Learn

Reason #10: Our students didn’t learn how to learn in the public K-12 system.
In general, they didn’t get much homework, and the standards they were held to were quite low. Furthermore, the No Child Left Behind Act has forced teachers to teach to the test, and the tests in no way assess the ability to learn. Memorize, maybe; learn, no.

Reason #9: Our students were told all their lives that they’re brilliant as they are.
According to report The American Freshman, published by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (2004), 70% of entering college students rated their academic ability above average or within the top 10% of their cohort. Both parents and teachers have conspired to perpetrate this belief to build their children’s self-esteem. But self-esteem without achievement is only a comforting illusion, and achievement is all about learning.  

Reason #8: Our students won’t otherwise be able to maximize their intelligence.
Most students think they were just born intelligent (see Reason #9), and, therefore, learning, if even necessary, should be effortless. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2007), Dweck called this kind of thinking a “fixed mind set.” It was universal up until about 15 years ago, but neurological research has since found that we can increase our intelligence by learning. Of course, if students don’t know how to learn, their intelligence willbe fixed.   

Reason #7: Our students don’t understand that achieving excellence in any realm, including college, requires major effort and hard work.
And why should they? Just showing up got them through their primary and secondary education with flying colors. Of those entering college, two-thirds claimed to have spent fewer than six hours a week on homework in their senior year in high school, and almost half graduated with an A average (The American Freshman, 2004).  
Our students need to know that real excellence requires eight uncommon values – hunger, effort, process, quality, consistency, leadership, time, and perseverance, according to Buyer in Working toward Excellence: 8 Values for Achieving Uncommon Success in Work and Life (2012). These are the ingredients of greatness, whether in sports, music, architecture, law, medicine, science, engineering, business, or learning.    

Reason #6: Our students are not ready for the kind of reading material we are assigning.
We already know that they didn’t get much assigned reading in high school (see reason #7). The National Endowment for the Humanities (2007) reported that only 4% of high school graduates and 31% of bachelor-degree holders test proficient in reading prose, and both figures represent declines from 1992. No doubt today’s college students fall somewhere in between. While many are avid readers of social media and non-academic material, they spend only about 37% of their reading time on college reading assignments, which they describe as “tedious” and “time-consuming.” In fact, they often skip the assigned readings unless their grades depend on it. These are the findings that Huang, Capps, and Blacklock presented at the 2013 meetings of the American Educational Research Associate last April. 

Reason #5: Our students see no connection between their learning during college and their success after it, so they don’t try to learn how to learn on their own.
Many believe that it’s not what you know but who you know that gets you ahead. Besides, they expect their future employers to teach them what they need to know. It’s time that we disavow of these misconceptions by bringing “real world” representatives of various lines of work into our classes and tying our material to their prospective occupations and personal lives. Once we do that, students should be quite open to learning how to learn. Many already know that their current strategies don’t pay off. They know that they can’t interpret directions, solve problems, write clearly, or retain what they read. They also know that when they cram for a final, they forget the material within days. We need to convince them why they should care.

Reason #4: Our students desperately need practice focusing. 
When we look around our classrooms, we usually see students juggling their attention among texting a friend, watching an Internet video, finishing homework for another class, and listening to us. As a result, they don’t do any of these tasks well. But this is how they are living life. The first rule in learning how to learn is to concentrate on the learning task at hand. When our students learn how to learn, they learn how to focus.

Reason #3: Our students won’t learn our course material, even if we “cover” it. 
They won’t know how to learn it. And then what are our professional lives worth? What is higher educationworth?  

Reason #2: Our students will have to keep learning throughout their lives.
Of course, they will have to stay abreast of their ever-evolving specialization to work effectively. But think about the broader consequences of their not continuing to learn—the economic and technological stagnation and disruption that will inevitably result.  

And the #1 reason why we HAVE to teach our students how to learn: If we don’t teach them, then who will?  
Their employers won’t. The buck stops here, at the college level.

Originally published in 2013 as an invited blog posting on StylusPub. Available at Stylus Publishing