My recent discoveries suggest that “good students” — those with decent skills and who work hard — enjoy consistent academic success in settings with two distinct academic conditions. Fortunately for them, many courses have these conditions. This post shares the two conditions and includes quotes from students who learned to learn when these conditions are not met.
Ideally, confidence flows from competence. We feel confident in the areas in which we are most competent. However, during my recent consultancies, I discovered a flaw in the competence = confidence equation, and this flaw is a key development in my 20-year research into why good students perform poorly in college.
During my two-year stint at a private university in Ohio, phenomena I’ve observed at many institutions played out quite plainly before me, and I think these discoveries have broader implications for the higher education community.
But I’m most interested in what you think.
The students I worked with at this institution entered college with high academic achievement. They all graduated in the top 10% of their high school class, and they entered college as confident scholars. During my interactions, it was evident that these students’ confidence was based on a set of perspectives and practices that they had successfully exploited throughout their pre-college academic experience. They possessed the kind of discreet academic assurance that is built by the accumulation of high achievements through hard work over an extended period of time.
All of the students were aspiring scientists who lived and breathed science. I got to know a core group of them quite well over the two-year relationship, training them in metacognitive peer assistance, observing them administer assistance, and informally conversing with them. They “geeked out” on science stuff.
However, I was brought in to solve a historical problem of performance disparities among underrepresented and well-represented students. (I will share more about the elegant solution I developed in future posts. The project, Clearing the Path: Helping Underrepresented Students Travel the Path from Hard Work to High Performance, is actively and successfully solving those performance disparities problems). In this short post, I’d like to point out a key observation with the hopes of generating discussion with colleagues, students, and parents for whom the findings resonate.
The competencies that get high-achieving students into college are not the competencies that will get them through college. While that statement isn’t surprising, some of the nuances I discovered are interesting.
Many of our best college students are skilled learning technicians, but they are unskilled at managing their own learning. They operate tactically rather than strategically. These studious young adults have been saddled with a laundry list of task-specific and discipline-constrained tactics. By default, they use tactics, such as Cornell’s notes, flashcards, and concept maps to pass tests without meaningfully learning the material.
This tactical approach to academic work has some merit, but it seems only applicable when academic courses meet either of the two conditions described below.
Condition #1) Students possess strong background knowledge in the course.
Because these students tend to have fairly well-organized minds, and the tactics mentioned above are useful in this context, they can successfully retrieve information from their mental storehouse and match it with various types of assessments.
Condition #2: Students have all of the “ingredients” needed to produce the required learning outcomes.
When all of the content and concepts are clearly provided, much like a recipe, these students will perform well. They excel when all of the givens are known, and their task is “simply” following the steps, procedures, process, etc. Because these students are accustomed to hard work, they will invest the necessary time to memorize and meticulously follow all of the steps.
Our successful students have a high degree of competence in these situations and their confidence soars in these settings. But when they encounter material in which they’ve had little to no previous exposure, they are surprised by their level of incompetence, so they become anxious.
Listen to how this bright student summarized her experience (post metacognitive training):
Metacognition has greatly impacted my own learning because I am now aware of how my thinking and interpreting of information compare to what my professors expect of me. Prior to this experience, it would have never occurred to me that the way in which I was thinking and processing information may not be aligned with my professors’ expectations, and, therefore, could be making a course more difficult for me than it needs to be.
Kristina (sophomore student)
Without a concrete strategy, they double on “go-to” tactics, such as rereading, reorganizing their notes, repeatedly meeting with the professor or seeking perpetual academic assistance. These efforts are noble, but they don’t help students evolve from study technicians to learning managers.
Being a skilled technician is an entirely different competency than being a manager of one’s learning. The former is great when conditions one and two are met. But one thing the COVID-19 virtual learning experience has made clear is that when conditions #1 and #2 are not met, students, educators and institutions struggle.
Just imagine if students knew how to learn outside of those contexts before COVID-19 hit, the move to remote learning would have been seamless. Students would have had the metacognitive infrastructure needed to function as truly autonomous thinkers and independent learners. Their confidence would have been rooted in the proper set of competencies, and perhaps their academic abilities (and by proxy higher education) would have been validated rather than challenged.
Rather than imagine, let this student’s experience give you confidence in what can happen when students possess the proper competencies.
After being trained in what metacognition means and helping other students with this form of thinking strategy, it has not only had a positive impact on my ability to learn, but it has helped a number of my students improve their grades. Metacognition helped to expand my mindset and hone in on my weaknesses in order to become a more efficient student and effective learner!
Mitchell (sophomore student)
Questions for the Road
- So, can the students you encounter learn when conditions 1 and 2 are not met?
- Can they learn when they know little to nothing about the material that is being covered and when all of the pieces are not provided?
- Can they properly pace their learning, judge their proximity to their learning targets and make strategic adjustments to expedite their learning if needed?
So, if we want to close any of the gaps that plague higher education, let’s equip students with real metacognitive learning competencies because they will need them to thrive in school and in life.
I’d love your thoughtful response. The stage is yours:)!