I can assure you of two things. One, learning is an intrinsic human function. We are born to learn, just as Rita Smilkstein, PhD, popularized in her book by that name. Two, students are far closer to consistent, across‑the‑board high‑performance than it may appear. This is good news because it means we don’t have to shove students toward success. We just have to nudge them gently and strategically.
There is a formula for doing cognitively complex academic work. In my forthcoming book, Avoiding Transition Traps: How to Successfully Transition Students into College, I call it the Learner’s Formula. If students get any factors of this formula wrong, then they will underperform. By underperform, I mean that they will not learn sufficiently and therefore won’t perform well on assessments.
Thinking and time apportionment go hand in hand. Students are poor at apportioning time for academic work because they aren’t acutely aware of the thinking that they must invest in the task. So a key outcome is to get students to do the mental work that they will be required to do on assessments while they are studying, attending class, and doing other types of academic work. This is why we must start with ensuring that students can differentiate their thinking skills. If they lack this skill, then everything else will be much, much harder.
Once you’ve helped students differentiate their thinking skills, the next step is doing complex abstract work correctly. If I asked you to multiply four times six, you would quickly do this work in your head. But if I told you to multiply 246 times 379, you would likely write the problem down and then solve it on paper. The work required to solve the second problem is too complex to do in your head. It’s not that you are incapable of solving the problem; the challenge is that your mind cannot mentally represent working through the math in your head. This is the challenge with abstract work.
One key reason students can be successful in high school but then struggle in college is because college work is much more complex and therefore requires more abstract labor. So if we want to empower students to do high‑quality academic work, then we must help them think properly while they are interacting with material, and we must make the work less abstract. The ABCs of Academic Work assignments were created to help you do just that.
Assignment B: Optimizing Your Thinking helps students use their notes to compare their current thinking to the thinking requirements of the course. Then it provides a framework they can use to adjust and ultimately optimize their thinking.
The mental work students must engage in to do assignments A and B create the conditions for cognitive fusion. We want to fuse together the thinking elements of the course to the thinking work students must do. This macro‑level work creates the proper cognitive context for students to work.
Assignment C: Redefining Your Role helps students reconceptualize how they must think as they engage with the material throughout the course.
Getting students to complete these three assignments will help them think well, learn well, and perform well, and will lay the groundwork for the seven‑step solution.
When you analyze students’ notes, discern the modes of thinking they’re using. Then compare their modes of thinking to the quality of thinking needed to produce the course outcomes.
Students tend to engage in outcome stagnation: using the same thinking skills on a wide array of academic material. Students who work hard to memorize material will do well on tests and tasks that are assessing them for memory‑level outcomes. These students will not perform well on tests and tasks that are assessing for higher‑level thinking skills.
Students must shift to outcome variation: producing different outcomes with the same content. If students are going to do well on cognitively complex material, then they must be able to activate thinking skills consistent with the modes of thinking that are being assessed.
For example, you can use the following types of questions to prompt their thinking:
Did you previously use the course outcomes to guide your thinking and learning?
What were you previously using to gauge your learning?
Were you previously consciously selecting your modes of thinking?
How does this process of thinking feel different than your usual way of processing?
You can ask students to verbalize their responses, or they can write them down or journal if you are in an asynchronous setting. The key point is that you want to search for whether students have gone beyond the content and become more attuned to their own cognitive processing. This is metacognitive growth!
See you in the comments!