How to Become an Expert Learner

By Adam Dube, Head of School

A great education isn’t simply being presented with relevant or meaningful information to learn; a great education presents this information in a way that encourages you to learn it...and learn it well. And while each of us, having been students ourselves, have ideas about what works best for learning, myths and ineffective strategies abound. Every year students spend hundreds of hours employing low-value study strategies, often at the urging of their teachers, parents, or peers. There are several reasons why these ineffective strategies persist.

The Illusion of Knowledge

Although re-reading texts or class notes can be rather time-intensive strategies, they remain popular because we recognize the material when re-reading it. Highlighting material has a similar effect. The fluency illusion causes us to feel we have a greater understanding of a concept or material than we might actually have, simply because we’ve seen it before. However, when asked to recall the material, we often struggle.

Persistence of Learning Styles

The idea that each of us has a particular way in which we learn has been around for years. Nevertheless, there is little evidence that learning styles actually exist. While there may be modes of learning that we enjoy more or less, there is no correlation with improved performance when students studied according to their preferred learning style.

Cramming Works (Sort of)

Massed practice (a.k.a. cramming) can work in the short-term. Oftentimes students will plan to do all of their preparation in a very short timeframe, perhaps the night before a big test or quiz. While this sometimes leads to success in the short-run, students rarely retain the information in the long-run. The result might be a good grade, but the question of whether or not they actually learned anything remains. In fact, when retested on the same material just weeks after the test, many students fail to recall the information.

What’s the solution?

A wealth of research exists about which strategies are proven to be effective when it comes to learning. Additionally, there are a number of books and other resources available to guide students in becoming expert learners. One of the highest-rated and most popular online courses of all-time also covers this topic. In order to become an expert learner, there are a few things to keep in mind:

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Struggle is Good

The process of forgetting and then working to recall information is actually a good thing. Some high-value strategies take time and effort, which dissuade us from using them; however, it’s because of the struggle that they are better in the long-run.

Time + Effort = Success

One of the best strategies to use is spaced practice, as opposed to massed practice. Spending a little bit of time each night studying and learning material is far better than spending longer study periods over a shorter period of time. Although we may find we forget some information in between study sessions, that’s o.k.! The process of having to recall it will only improve long-term retention.

Test Yourself

There are a variety of different ways to do this. We can ask a friend of someone else to quiz us over the material. Flashcards are a great tool for self-quizzing (there are even apps for that). Just avoid simply reading through your notes again.

What do great teachers do?

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At Columbia Independent School, we recognize that students often employ low-value study strategies. Our teachers are encouraged to promote the use of high-value strategies at all age levels. We believe this is so important that all sixth students take a class, Learn to Learn, that specifically focuses on:

  • Recognizing low-value strategies

  • Replacing low-value strategies with research-based strategies

  • Developing organization, planning, and prioritizing skills to successfully implement high-value strategies

Additionally, students can receive small group tutoring through our Student Success Center, where each teacher/tutor has been trained in helping students maximize their studying.

While there are a variety of high-value strategies students can employ (check-out the resources linked to this article), they won’t work if they don’t use them. So take a few minutes to review current strategies and compare them to the high-value strategies. If you’re not sure, students can ask a teacher for advice. Good luck!

Strategic Focus: Academic Programs

By Adam Dubé, Head of School

“We aspire to develop programs that are dynamic and individualized. We seek to build an engaging learning environment that encourages collaboration, innovation, and entrepreneurial thinking with a goal of creating lifelong learners and active global citizens.”

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Each of our four areas of strategic focus begins with an aspirational goal. As Robert Browning famously wrote, “(A) man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” At CIS, we constantly aspire to be more. To improve. To guide our students to pursue excellence. To exceed our grasp. We actively do this by encouraging a growth mindset in our faculty, staff, and students.

Our aspirational goal for Academic Programs focuses on those skills and competencies we believe our students need to develop not only for success in college, but also for success in life. To that end, there are four areas of focus related to this goal:

  1. Adopt a student assessment program that balances content acquisition with skill mastery so that faculty can individualize instruction, promote innovative thinking, and encourage student initiative.

  2. Create a seamless curriculum from JK through 12th grade that encourages student curiosity, engagement, and innovation in order to foster collaboration among peers and between faculty and students.

  3. Create engaging learning environments that result in lifelong learners. Engaging learning environments spark curiosity and provide the necessary tools to pursue knowledge beyond the formal education system

  4. Develop global citizens who can and should impact the lives of others. Global citizens need to be flexible, creative, and proactive in order to solve problems, make decisions, think creatively, communicate their ideas effectively both verbally and in writing, and work well with teams and groups.

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These four goals can be summarized by four words: innovation; collaboration; communication; and engagement. The first three are skills. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review states that more than “one in three workers may need to adapt their skills mix by 2030.” Of the skills identified as necessary for success in the future, innovation, collaboration, and communication regularly make the list of critical skills for the future, not to mention the present. By shaping our curriculum to encourage the growth of these skills, we aspire to move students towards mastery of them.

Engagement is the final word, and it speaks to the relevance of learning. Traditionally, schooling is something that increasingly happens to students as they get older, rather than being an active participant in the learning. We seek to turn that model on its head. CIS graduates have always been well-prepared for the rigors of selective colleges. We seek to keep students actively engaged in their learning through problem-based instruction, hands-on activities, and higher-order thinking, creating lifelong learners (see the HBR article referenced above).

While schools can prepare students to succeed on paper-and-pencil-style tests, we realize that many of life’s most important tests don’t involve paper and pencil. A strong foundation must include both knowledge and skills, and should be flexible and adapt to our changing world. At CIS, the skills of innovation, collaboration, communication, and engagement will continue to inform and shape that foundation.