Tips to Make Learning Stick

by Janet Mizrahi

At the end of my business communication course, I ask students to write me a letter or an e-mail to discuss what they have learned. It’s a way for me toshutterstock_298095335_NOV2015 see if they have taken away the tenets of business communication we have covered during the quarter. The assignment leads to pretty consistent positive responses, which are echoed in the students’ course evaluations. They almost uniformly report that they “learned a lot!—thanks, Prof!” and that they “will use what I’ve learned for the rest of my career!”

Although these comments are nice to read, I often find myself not quite believing students’ ebullient responses, especially when I see the errors many of them make in both the writing and the document design of the assignment.

Recently I’ve been using two pedagogical theories to help my students retain what I teach: metacognition—awareness of one’s cognitive processes—and transfer—taking skills learned in one setting and applying them in another. I’ve started incorporating both into my class, and I believe I’m making some headway.

Teaching Strategies to Foster Metacognition and Transfer

Like most of you, I try to show models of good and not-so-good examples of most assignments. However, lately I’ve been asking students to spend some time in class analyzing the writing strategies that have led to the successful or unsuccessful outcome. I can almost see the light bulbs going off in their heads as they list the differences between successful and unsuccessful models.

This is where I used to stop. Now I also talk about metacognition, explaining that it’s important for students to think about what kind of information they absorb and how they are taking in this information so they can retrieve it in a different context. I see students nodding their heads in agreement or actually looking up from their phones when I do this. Suddenly, it seems, they begin to think about what I’m teaching and whether they have learned it.

Another forum that fosters student thinking about the acquisition of knowledge involves a peer edit session. After students evaluate a classmate’s assignment, they discuss it using questions I have given to them. When students work together in these small groups, they are less inhibited to bring up their own challenges with completing the assignment. Fellow students often offer feedback that helps the other grasp a concept. This reinforcement of what they have practiced again turns on light bulbs and theoretically helps cement knowledge.

Another strategy to get students thinking about how they learn is assigning a written reflection about their writing, which they complete in class. (I’ve tried assigning it as homework, but those responses tended to be much less detailed, dashed off instead of mulled over.) Questions to pose in a reflection are designed to force students to perform a metacognitive analysis of their own work.

These written reflections can be incorporated into many business communication assignments. For example, instructors can ask students to list what they know about a subject (say writing an e-mail) before a lesson. Then after the discussion, students can again reflect of what they have learned about the same topic. Such reinforcement forces students to make connections and subsequently, in theory, to add to their own knowledge. Answering reflective questions such as what was confusing, what was challenging, what made X difficult, how did you figure out how to do X? helps students become more actively involved in their own learning process.

I’ve found one reflection especially helpful. For a large group project, students write a rough draft of their individual section of a report and bring it to class. Using hard copy, students work in teams of two or three and follow a peer edit guide that includes the assignment’s requirements. From that session, students rewrite their rough draft before they submit it to me for a grade. On the day they turn in the rough draft, students answer the answer the following questions:

  1. Read your section again. What would you like to work on for the final draft? Be specific and list at least five elements you’d like to change when you rewrite.
  1. What challenges did you encounter when writing and rewriting your section? What did you learn about writing in general and writing for business audiences in particular?
  1. What specific advice would you like me to provide as I read your rough draft?

The first question helps students look at their work objectively, and I’ve found that almost uniformly, students detect the same problems as I do when I grade. The second question gets them thinking about themselves as writers and the importance of drafts, which may be the single most important writing strategy they take away from my course. The last question forces students to look at their writing critically and ask for my feedback, thereby stimulating metacognitive thinking… and hopefully, taking away more from our time together that will stick with them.

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What are your thoughts about transfer of knowledge? Share your experiences!

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