Learning how to Learn: an Instructional Guide

By Olivia Balkwill

4 February 2022

A person at a desk with a computer and books

Figuring out which study strategies work best for you and are actually effective can be challenging, especially when starting post-secondary education. Should you be memorizing all of your lecture notes? Re-reading the entire textbook? Reviewing with friends?

Students now have a new tool to help them “learn to learn”, thanks to a new study led by Department of Integrative Biology researchers Dr. Shoshanah Jacobs, recent MSc graduate Bailey Bingham and Dr. Karl Cottenie, along with Claire Coulter from OpenEd.  The team created an instructional guide of effective study strategies for first year biology students, then set out to investigate if the guide could improve different measures of a student’s academic performance.

The idea for the study was sparked by Bingham’s own experience as an undergraduate in Psychology.  “I noticed that students in psychology were often very familiar with the processes of their learning and would employ their psychology knowledge when studying, but biology students never get any education on how to study or on the processes of learning. That observation is really what got me interested in looking at how students monitor and improve their learning and how we can help with that process through our classes.” 

“The goal of this study was to see if there was a super low-key way to slip in information to help students learn without them having to wade through all of the literature on learning how to learn,” says Jacobs. “And we wanted to see if we could do it in a way that would allow an instructor to support students with evidence-based strategies in large classes without needing to be an expert in education theory.”

To do this, Jacobs and Bingham created an online instructional guide, posted on the course webpage, consisting of a calendar of study activities and higher-order thinking questions. Higher order thinking questions are those that require students to use more complex critical thinking skills to come to an answer. Students were instructed to consult the guide after each lecture and complete the activities proposed for the day to self-assess their learning.

“The purpose of the higher-order thinking questions was for the students to try to answer them without notes and to get it wrong,” explains Jacobs. “We wanted them to use that failure as an opportunity for learning.” 

Another evidence-based strategy that the guide encourages is delayed-feedback.  Jacobs explains that past researchers have found that “if there’s a gap between submitting and getting feedback you learn better, possibly because you need to give your brain time to commit to your answers.”  Students were therefore instructed to wait before looking at assignment feedback provided by the instructor.

So what effect did the instructional guide have on students’ academic performance?

Students who used the instructional guide had higher knowledge about which study strategies were more effective and how to use them. They were also better able to assess which study strategies they should use in the future.

Student grades were also impacted.  The researchers found that students who used the guide received lower overall grades but also “showed a significant improvement from the second midterm to the final exam.”

This result was unexpected, so Jacobs and Bingham investigated the role that another factor may have played in students’ grades — anxiety.  

According to Bingham, grades decreased as anxiety increased.  “We found that students who reported greater anxiety were more likely to report having used the guide. However, perhaps due to their anxiety, these students still had lower absolute performance compared to less anxious peers, and/or peers who chose not to use the guide.”

When asked why this research is important, Bingham explains that its value doesn’t just lie in the classroom.

“So many of the challenges we face right now are deeply entrenched in society's misunderstanding and mistrust of science. Training well-rounded scientific thinkers at the undergraduate level is one way to help change this. And part of training well-rounded scientific thinkers is ensuring that they have training in, not just science, but also the processes of learning and thinking that help them to become better scientific thinkers.”

So what can readers take away from this study?

A resource such as the instructional guide developed by Jacobs, Bingham, Coulter, and Cottenie can foster critical reflection, and this can not only improve studying in a context of higher education, as observed in this case, but also foster learning in other settings such as work.

"This approach [the guide] supports the reflective practice and also humanizes learning by making you an active participant,” says Jacobs.


Read the full study in The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

Read about other CBS Research Highlights.