Overcoming Obstacles: How to Help Incoming Freshmen Transition into Sophisticated Learners

Dr. Ron Elizaga is a social psychologist and professor in the Psychology and Education Department at Columbus State Community College, where he teaches Intro to Psychology, Social Psychology, and Personality Psychology. He is a winner of the CSCC Distinguished Teaching Award, is a co-founder of the Generation One Trailblazers first-generation student resource group, and maintains research interest in social cognition, goal persistence, and motivation. 

Ron Elizaga
Image Credit: Ron Elizaga

In my younger days, I aspired to be a professional tennis player. Though I was pretty good regionally, when I started playing against world-ranked players, it was quite the eye-opener. I quickly learned that the approach I’d been using up to that point wasn’t going to succeed at this new level. Fortunately, I had great coaches who shared tricks on how to succeed on this new stage.  

In the same way, our students often arrive at college to find that their high school learning strategies don’t always work at the next level, while also having to adjust to more advanced subject matters, unfamiliar surroundings, new people, and other changes. However, traditional strategies that emphasize teaching subject-specific information before learning strategies aren’t set up to help students make this transition. Research in cognitive psychology—especially in the domains of learning, memory, and motivation—tells us that these two things do not have to be mutually exclusive. We can teach students how to learn while teaching them what to learn. In order to do this, sometimes it’s helpful—particularly for instructors of intro courses—to identify some common obstacles freshmen students face, and then share with students some empirically based strategies to help them overcome these obstacles and be more sophisticated learners.  

Obstacle #1: Our intuition of our own learning is unreliable 

Ideally, students would arrive at college with good insight into their learning strategies. However, a survey by Hartwig and Dunlosky (2012) found that 80 percent of students answered “no” to the question “Do you learn the way that you do because someone taught you to learn that way?” Instead, they were following their own intuitions on how best to learn. Unfortunately, research shows that our intuition of our own learning is unreliable (Denes-Raj & Epstein, 1994).  

Through questioning my own students over the years, I’ve also found that students don’t quite understand (or have never thought about) how learning and memory work. In our Intro to Psychology course, students learn that memory works in three stages: encoding (the input of information), storage (saving the information), and retrieval (recovering the information from storage). Once students understand how memory works, we can help them improve their processing at these three stages. For example, research shows that memory is best when encoded semantically (Craik & Tulving, 1975). In other words, students learn better when they’re understanding the concepts, versus just memorizing words. 

This finding essentially tells us that common strategies such as flashcards (visual encoding) or text-to-speech apps (audio encoding) aren’t helpful if the students do not understand the material and process at a deeper level. In addition, memory is best encoded when rehearsed (Gardiner et al., 1994). Much as one learns the lyrics to a song via repetition, so one learns information for an exam. Underscore that students must rehearse the information for the exam. Translation: Don’t cram! One way I promote rehearsal is to have students lead a review of previous class topics during the first 5–10 minutes of every class. I essentially have students teach everything back to me (in summarized form). Not only is this rehearsal practice, but it also promotes semantic processing—if they can successfully teach a concept back to me (even after looking at their notes), then they must really understand it. Another tactic I use to promote rehearsal is positive reinforcement. Basically, I tell students that I will offer extra-credit quizzes randomly in class throughout the semester, and that to do well on the extra credit they should rehearse the material (study) a little bit each day. For this to really work, students can’t know when the extra credit is going to be. This strategy usually motivates them to look over their notes a little bit before each class just in case extra credit will be offered that day. 

Obstacle #2: Students may not know successful learning strategies

Many students have the desire to learn, but may not know the most successful learning strategies. I often hear frustrated students share how they “studied for hours” or they “knew the information at the time,” but are baffled when they don’t perform well on an exam. Or they crammed in the minutes leading up to an exam with the belief that the information is “fresh” in their head. Most popular (and unsuccessful) are shallow processing strategies such as re-reading, re-copying notes, or highlighting, all of which give the student a false sense of learning.  

Fortunately, some empirically proven strategies work for everyone. A few years ago, I met a group of cognitive psychologists who focus on the science of learning. They call themselves The Learning Scientists, and their goal is to make successful learning strategies more accessible to students and educators. Essentially, they outline six empirically proven strategies that lead to effective learning: concrete examples, spaced practice, elaboration, dual coding, interleaving, and retrieval practice.  

Retrieval practice—training yourself to mentally search for information—is my favorite to share with students because it exposes the weaknesses of more commonly used strategies. One retrieval practice technique that I share with students is to simply study their notes for 20 minutes or so. Then, with their notebook closed, write down on a blank sheet of paper everything they can remember from their notes. When done, compare what they wrote with their notes, highlighting those things they forgot or got wrong. Next, focus studying on the highlighted material, and repeat with the blank sheet of paper until they can remember all the information. Typically, students just read over their notes, and the inherent sense of familiarity gives them a false sense of learning. In contrast, retrieval of information without any cues (e.g., blank sheet of paper) is similar to what they usually experience on an exam. Further, it leads to deeper processing of the information.

Obstacle #3: Students are unable to monitor their own learning

When I was a young student, the prevailing belief was that mistakes should be avoided lest they be repeated. Current research indicates that this is not the case (Metcalfe, 2017). Students will learn the correct information, especially when given feedback. For instance, allowing students to solve a problem and potentially make mistakes before showing them the actual answer has proven to be more effective in learning and retaining the correct solution than simply telling them the answer up front. 

Do you remember Charlie Brown from the Peanuts comic strip? Whenever he’d experience frustration, his famous exclamation was “Good grief!” If you think about the phrase, it’s a bit oxymoronic—“good” is positive, but “grief” is perceived as negative. However, in terms of learning, there is definitely a constructive element to experiencing “good grief.” When first attempting a new strategy, the student will most likely experience some frustrations as the truth of their limited learning is exposed. This “grief” may lead them to think they’re not learning. However, soon they’ll realize that this grief is “good grief,” and that the early mistakes lead to better retention and being a better monitor of their own learning.

To me, this idea of “good grief,” or the willingness to learn from mistakes, is related to the idea of intellectual humility—the awareness of the limits of one’s knowledge. More simply defined, it’s the willingness to recognize that you don’t know everything, and that humility is a powerful trait in learning.  By contrast, pride, egocentrism, or being taught that mistakes are bad is more likely to act as an obstacle to learning.  So, I tell my students that to be the most open learner, they must have the courage to admit that they don’t know everything. In fact, intellectual humility has been shown to enhance academic performance via stronger intrinsic motivation and greater receptivity to feedback (Wong & Wong, 2021). An opportune time to share this idea would be after the first exam, or one could simply embed it in the syllabus if time is limited.

While not every challenge an incoming student faces is under their control, the solutions laid out here are. No matter the status of the student—traditional, nontraditional, international, first-generation, working—the amount of effort given is within one’s power. So, while sharing these learning strategies, we can also emphasize the role of effort. Every student has the potential to succeed. We as educators simply need to nurture that potential to help our students become sophisticated learners.   

Works Cited

Craik, F. I. M., & Tulving, E. (1975). Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104(3), 268–294. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-3445.104.3.268

Cuevas, Joshua. (November 2015). Is learning styles-based instruction effective?: a comprehensive analysis of recent research on learning styles. Theory and Research in Education, 13(3): 308–333.

Denes-Raj, V., & Epstein, S. (1994). Conflict between intuitive and rational processing: When people behave against their better judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(5), 819–829.

Gardiner, J. M., Gawlik, B., & Richardson-Klavehn, A. (1994). Maintenance rehearsal affects knowing, not remembering; elaborative rehearsal affects remembering, not knowing. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 1(1), 107–110.  

Hartwig, M. K., & Dunlosky, J. (2012). Study strategies of college students: Are self-testing and scheduling related to achievement? Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 19, 126–134.

Metcalfe, J. (2017). Learning from errors. Annual Review of Psychology, 68, 465–489.

Wong, H. M., & Wong, T. Y. (2021). Exploring the relationship between intellectual humility and academic performance among post-secondary students: The mediating roles of learning motivation and receptivity to feedback. Learning and Individual Differences, 88.

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