Mustafa Z Altan emphasises the value of learning how to learn for teachers and students alike.

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The following article is reproduced with the kind permission of English Teaching professional magazine.

My aim here is to review the fundamentals of learning how to learn. It is very sad to see that the notion that learning is synonymous with a change in behaviour is still in practice in many educational settings all over the world. I strongly believe that it is time to change, and instead of causing learning in students, let our students cause learning by themselves. Teachers need to incorporate learning how to learn in all teaching plans to acknowledge students' individual differences.

The learning-how-to-learn concept

Learning how to learn has three components: knowledge about learning, knowledge about learning styles, and skills to improve learning proficiency.

Knowledge about learning

Students need general knowledge about learning, such as how memory operates, together with self-awareness, for instance of how they approach a reading assignment. To apply this knowledge, they need skills for three common types of learning: self-directed learning, collaborative or group learning, and formal education.

Knowledge about learning styles

When students understand the attributes of their own learning styles, they can seek out or ask for the instruction they need. It also gives students the knowledge to try out some aspects of other learning styles which will help them to go beyond their comfort zones, and thus potentially broaden the ways they learn.

Skills to improve learning proficiency

Each time teachers incorporate learning-how-to-learn components into the curriculum, they are providing information and practice which increase their students' ability to learn that particular content as well as future content.

Why teachers need to know about learning how to learn

Learners have a set of strategies for learning things that are acquired through experience. They use these strategies to attack new learning. If the strategies are ineffective or less effective, learning will not occur or will occur more slowly. Thus, the recognition of learning strategies and a plan for teaching alternative strategies is central to cost-effective training.

Fundamentals of learning how to learn

Learning how to learn is a continuous process, not a discrete event. What students already know about learning how to learn will contribute to their learning in a course. And what the teacher adds to their learning-how-to-learn repertoire will incrementally increase their ability to learn in all future learning settings.

Learning how to learn involves change. Students must adapt or change and they must trust that the new learning will help them to be successful. However, this is hard work. 

After gaining knowledge about how learning occurs, acquiring awareness of one's learning style, and learning the skills to improve one's learning efficiency, subsequent learning will be enhanced through the student's active seeking and asking for the learning elements needed, if they are not provided.

In summary, instruction in learning how to learn must be beneficial enough to be worth the effort required on the student's part and for the student to engage in it and to gain benefits from it in future learning settings.

Teaching generalisable learning strategies

Highly generalisable learning strategies may be taught as a first step towards more content-specific strategies. General learning-how-to-learn procedures may be taught in any content-specific course.

Since learning strategies have varying levels of generality, teachers best serve their students when they consider the content-specific learning strategies needed to learn course content. For instance, the typical workplace instructional design is composed of declarative knowledge (the what of the content), then procedural knowledge (the how of the content), followed by practice and feedback. Learning how to learn is best incorporated (i) between the declarative and procedural knowledge steps in the form of why this skill is important and when to use it, and (ii) with the practice step, in the form of practice on when and why to use the skill.

The value of research

Let's look at an example. In my class on individual differences in foreign language learning, students must acquire the most current information about this area of ELT. Library and Internet research is required. This research has two purposes: to help students to find current information germane to their present and future needs as EFL teachers, and to help them learn the newest information on how to assess the individual differences. After the declarative knowledge of what individual differences are and what is included in these differences, the students are introduced to some research concepts such as key words. They are also asked to explain why research skills are important to their future.

The need for practice

When research assignments are initiated, the practice phase of learning is filled with hands-on practice and presentation. Groups are formed to do some research on individual differences. The practice gives each student experience of when and why to use the research learning skills and how to collect sources on the assigned topic, as well as how to conduct their own research and interpret the results.

Care needs to be taken to present learning strategies as alternatives. Although the teacher's analysis of the content to be learnt may indicate that strategy A is ideal for acquisition of skill X, students may already have in their repertoire a superior learning strategy.

As with any learning, learning strategies are only acquired and incorporated into long-term memory when adequately practised. Learning-how-to-learn skills and ideas need immediate practice. The skills should be mentioned, explained, practised, checked, reinforced and repeated just as many other course components should be.

Teaching how to learn

Techniques for institutional learning

Institutional learning refers to formal coursework in schools and colleges which are part of our traditional education system. Success in institutional environments requires structured skills for absorbing, retaining and recalling course content. Learning how to learn in these environments is somewhat akin to acquiring good study skills.

Study skills

Course-specific study skills, taught as part of any course, can enhance student success. Teachers can increase the analytical skills of their students by asking them to classify, for example, events or a grammar rule into their own categories. Then teachers can ask students to infer the rules defining each category. Finally, the category-rule strategy can be applied to the categories or rules defined by the teacher or the textbook.

Test taking

Test taking can be taught as a learning-how-to-learn strategy. Gaining practice in exam situations can reduce test anxiety and increase performance. Teachers can give students assignments throughout the course that share the same format and structure as the course exams. Discussing performance on these assignments helps students develop exam skills.

Active reading

Active reading can be explained and contrasted with the students' current reading method. Once the components of active reading (survey the assignment, formulate questions of interest, read for answers to questions, review what one just read, make selective notes from the reading, and classroom presentation) are practised in class, students can readily compare it to their old reading methods. Teachers can encourage active reading by asking students to review the upcoming assignment in class and to offer questions they hope will be answered by the assignment. In the next class, teachers can ask for points of interest and main ideas from the assigned reading and/or let students make presentations of what they have already read about, including sharing the new vocabulary.

Note taking

Note taking is another learning strategy best addressed early for theoretical courses. Students can be asked to compare their note-taking methods with one another. The benefits of other methods can be assessed, and suggestions for note taking can be shared, based on the teacher's lecture style. As a result of such note-taking activities, students learn specific strategies for organising and relating contain in a particular course. They also learn that each course requires different note-taking methods for optimal performance.

Learning style information and application

In many learning contexts, students become more effective after completing a learning style assessment and understanding its uses. When using an instrument to inform students about their learning style, teachers should consider three issues. First the student should be informed about how the instrument's author looks at learning. Second, the learning style instrument should be used to create awareness of learning differences and of the value of those differences. Third, the learning style information should be positioned as only the starting point for students to study their behaviour as learners.

Independent learning projects

Learning how to learn is also applicable to independent learning. Two learning strategies needed in self-directed learning are how to find learning resources and how to narrow a topic of study to a manageable scope.

Finding learning resources may require nothing but a list to remind the student of all the resources available. It may also entail finding learning resources in familiar settings to be used in independent ways. When narrowing a learning topic, the student must scan the selected learning resource in a productive way.

Collaborative learning

To work in groups, we must be able to learn in groups, which requires communication skills, observation and reflection skills, and planning and consensus skills.

Group process and group development content can be studied. Once all members of a team become aware that it is normal for groups to progress through stages of group development, discouragement over ups and downs will be reduced. Also, when they learn to look back over a meeting and identify how it could have been improved through changes in their behaviour, team meetings will improve. Thus, the study of how to be a more productive team provides the content and the processes to be tried out in the work group.

Teachers need consciously to incorporate learning how to learn in all teaching plans. Using learning-how-to-learn techniques is one more way to acknowledge students' individual differences. It also tells students that we are realists, because it acknowledges that most student learning is done without teachers. In learning how to learn, the students' learning repertoire is augmented.

As teachers build learning how to learn into every course, they inevitably shift their role from that of content expert, source of all knowledge and centre of the universe to that of co-student, resource person, facilitator and coach. A coach shares methods, approaches and strategies for learning - the game plan - as well as the specific plays. While the expert knowledge (specific plays) is still of great value, the coaching is what makes it possible for students to go out and play the game successfully, learning throughout their lifetime.