Learning to Learn
Despite its potential impact, schools don't often provide many opportunities for students to be metacognitive, even about their own studies. Instead, we often plow ahead with instructional routines in much the same way we were taught, despite recent breakthroughs in neuroscience that shed important light on how we learn.
Educators who build in time for metacognition and related cognitive strategies help students become better learners by empowering them to learn about learning. There are many ways to do this. For example, one that I've observed includes consciously establishing foundational building blocks of knowledge that then can be expanded. Once the fundamental sets of knowledge have been identified and established, students are more likely to master more complex tasks such as extrapolating a theorem they learned in math to use in other contexts.
Another strategy I've seen work well for many students is to establish timed periods of intense focus followed by short breaks. Students who set a timer for twenty to twenty-five minutes of study followed by a five- to seven-minute break tend to benefit from alternating between focused learning and a more diffused mode of concentration that promotes free associations and connections between disparate pieces of information. That's why it's not uncommon to have unexpected insights when going for a walk or taking a shower—the brain takes advantage of these down times to work on problems unconsciously. And once students understand these natural rhythms of learning, they can more consciously use them to their advantage.
Of course, certain metacognitive learning strategies will be more effective for particular types of learners than others. As they are practiced, students will learn to recognize the advantages and limitations of each. But exploring these strategies is the first step in honing skills that will help students learn how to learn more effectively and tap into the potential of our brain as a learning machine—all while developing better metacognitive skills.
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