Education’s Biggest Problem: Getting Students to Learn, Teaching Them to Study


I am a pretty smart guy.  I have been told so my entire life even though I oft-times doubted it.  I did graduate from college, and then got a graduate degree from Harvard.  But, I did not even come close to achieving my potential.  The reasons for this belief are numerous but are rooted in my primary and secondary education.  At no time during those years was I ever taught how to study, and more importantly, how to deal with failure.

For the past five plus years I have been involved with primary grade school children.  They are expected to learn more, and at an earlier age, than I ever was.  But the most confounding problem for them, and the teachers, is getting any particular student to learn what is being offered.  A minority of student learn in spite of adverse situations and in the absence of being told how to study.  They, the fortunate few, will succeed regardless of circumstances.  But for most students, learning is an ongoing challenge but I contend that it is more of a challenge than need be.

Before I ever finished my junior year in public high school, I realized that any chance I had at getting into college meant I needed to change something.  To that end I convinced my parents to send me to a prep-school where distractions were minimized and I was able, mostly on my own, to gain the grades needed to get into not just any college, but a good college.  The problem was, and I found this out during my first semester in college, was I had absolutely no idea of how to study.

Studying is not natural.  Human beings have ingrained in them the natural desire to eat, sleep, and reproduce.  Everything else we humans need must be gained either via experience or education.  While experience is a fabulous teacher, saying we take experience as a teacher, our ability to study and learn something is neither natural nor guaranteed.  But proper studying need not be a trial and error sort of endeavour.  There are people who are well-versed in the art of study and its application.  The problem is, this knowledge is not being made available to our children, particular at early ages when it is the easiest to apply and practice.  In stead, children are largely left to their own devices.  A young person really has no idea of a successful way to study.

I remember in my young years often feeling overwhelmed by school assignments.  It was not unusual for me to either do them incompletely or not at all.  Too often I was so clueless of how to start that I gave up before I even tried.  Other times, I would have a study assignment of some sort and have no idea of how to retain what I was tasked to study.  By the time a test came I was frantic to do well and too often failed.

Studying is something that requires scheduling which is not natural to humans in general or to children in particular.  Within that there needs to be a plan.  The plan necessarily means breaking up an assignment into parts, completing it as best possible, and returning to the classroom with a list of written questions to bring back to the teacher.  But these ideas are not only not taught to students, they are not even hinted at.  This may be our public education system’s biggest failing.  The thing is, it can resolved easily and without a large insertion of time and money.  It simply needs to be added to every school’s curriculum in every year of a child’s education until he graduates from high school.

One thing every student is confronted with is fear, both of failure and of negative criticism.  A student who needs to ask a question does not do so because it is his belief that his question is “too dumb” or that his having to admit that he has absolutely no idea what a teacher means by what he is saying will be poorly received.  It is incumbant on schools systems to make the learning process as easy and comfortable as possible.  Inherent to that end is giving the student a written form of how to do things.  For example, the student does not understand what the teacher has been explaining.  On his written booklet is a highlighted question that deals with this exact problems and two, or more, ways to deal with such a problem; either the student makes the statement in the moment that he does not understand at all, or, goes up to the teacher immediately following the lesson and states his concern.  Buttressing this is the teacher reassuring the student from the beginning of the class year that such is the good and proper way to deal with problems.  Such problem solving becomes an education unto itself and enhances the education process.

Dealing with problems is something people experience their entire life.  But a healthy approach to dealing with problems is not a natural process but rather a learned thing.  Leaving such experience entirely to trial-and-error is both extremely inefficient and unnecessary.  Simply by teaching such principles at an early age helps every person with living successful and manageable lives.

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One thought on “Education’s Biggest Problem: Getting Students to Learn, Teaching Them to Study

  1. I agree that students who do not know how to study is unforgivable in this day and age! Not only do they need practical study skills, there are so many ways technology can make studying easier in a familiar format. I am researching the ways social media can help students form study groups, access immediate homework assistance, and remind them of assignment due dates. The success I have achieved is beyond what I had imagined when I started this project. Although I began with college students, this week I am presenting it to high school students. How scary is that?

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