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Promoting Expert Learning: Strategies for the Start of the Semester

As we enter each new semester, we look forward to greeting our students, anticipating their journey of learning and development, hopeful for what our students will achieve. In the midst of that hope, our expectations may be tempered with our knowledge, gained from past experience, that some of our students may not succeed. If only we could prevent at least some of this struggle for our students and ourselves.

McGuire and McGuire (2015) suggest that some of our students’ challenges arise from the fact that they have not learned how to learn; in other words, they may be able to respond to certain academic routines, but have not really come to understand for themselves how to set learning goals and select the actions that will most effectively support learning.  This knowledge of how to learn includes metacognition.

Metacognition, a term coined by John Flavell (1976) includes the skills of thinking about one’s own thinking, being able to plan and monitor learning, and knowing how to accurately assess current levels of knowledge and ability. A student with strong metacognitive skills is able to identify what a learning task requires them to do, to develop a realistic plan to guide their learning, to identify when seeking additional support is needed, and to self-assess their learning with reasonable accuracy.

The first weeks of the course present an opportunity time to guide students towards greater metacognitive skills. How can this happen, in the midst of an already full agenda of course objectives and learning activities? McGuire and McGuire (2015) address the obstacle of a lack of time with this encouragement:

When I present strategies for faculty to use, the most common objection I hear is, “I already have too much stuff to cover. I can’t afford the time to do extra activities.” Yes, that is a position we can take. But isn’t it truer that we can’t afford not to do everything in our power to increase our students’ learning? Faculty who do decide to use some of these strategies report that it takes some time at the beginning of the semester but then they end up moving faster toward the end. They absolutely do not sacrifice course content by spending time helping their students develop learning strategies. (p. 93)

Creating space for building metacognition and supporting students as they “learn how to learn” is also a practical way of demonstrating a pedagogy of care for students, practically investing in their development within and beyond the specific tasks of the course.

What strategies might you use in early in the course?

  • Engage students in active learning activities around the course presentation/syllabus and the learning objectives of the course. For example, after reviewing course objectives, ask students to reflect and articulate their learning goals for the course.  McGuire and McGuire (2015) suggest that students work in small groups to answer questions such as:
  1. Based on your understanding now, what should you be able to understand and do by the end of this course?
  2. Describe a successful student in this course.  What do they do to learn?
  3. What are the ways that your learning is assessed in this course? What do you need to do on a weekly basis to be successful on course assignments?
  • When reviewing the class assignments, engage students in initial planning of how they plan to organize their learning time to achieve balance between meeting their learning goals, managing other life commitments, and attending to their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Many students appreciate semester and weekly schedule templates to guide them through this process.
  • Lead students through a process of understanding what skills and competencies contribute to success on a particular assessment, and guide students through goal setting on their personal development.

One tool to aid in this process is a skills audit exercise, where students self-evaluate their experience with relevant skills, and create goals for their personal academic and self-development. For example, students can plan to attend workshops, watch video tutorials, and meet with librarians, learning strategists, or tutors.

  • Engage students in structured reflection on an early course assessment. Students can assess whether they have met their learning goal, what strategies contributed to their success, and where further growth is still needed. Rather than viewing assessments as fixed, unchangeable data points, reflection on feedback can be used to promote the possibility of ongoing growth and planning for the next actions students can take.
  • Guide students into forming a strong learning community within the class. Raffini (1995) identifies belonging as a key component of motivation for learning, as humans have an intrinsic desire to be a part of a supportive community. Create space for students to complete tasks with learning partners and small groups in each class and promote studying with classmates outside of class time. To explore additional considerations around building classroom community, consider taking the Inclusive Teaching domain of the Foundations in Teaching Excellence program.

By supporting students in developing themselves as learners, we both promote achievement in our courses, and holistic growth for our students. The time invested in teaching our students how to learn is likely to pay off in the reward of seeing more students achieve course learning outcomes, as well as the knowledge that we are contributing to our students’ futures as reflective, skilled facilitators of their own learning and personal development.


Flavell, J. H. (1976). Metacognitive aspects of problem solving. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), The nature of intelligence (pp. 231–235). Lawrence Erlbaum.

McGuire, S. Y., & McGuire, S. (2015). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation (First edition). Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Raffini, J. P. (1996). 150 ways to increase intrinsic motivation in the classroom. Allyn and Bacon.

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Christina supports faculty in their journey of understanding and enriching learning for culturally diverse students, while aiming to facilitate a more joyful intercultural teaching experience. In addition to her work in the Teaching and Learning Commons, her KPU Learning Strategist role allows her to see the learning process from the student side and to integrate her understanding of both faculty and student perspectives. Her educational background includes applied linguistics and educational studies, and her roles have included ESL instructor, literacy consultant, researcher, and adult educator in both Canadian and international contexts. Christina facilitates workshops, connects faculty with relevant resources, and is available for individual consultations.

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