Creating Master Learners

Let me start by apologizing for not getting a new post up sooner.  The fact is that work and family (and a kitchen remodel) have kept me busy lately and I just didn’t have time to get this done.  I am sure most of you can relate to that problem.  We all have more that we want to do than we have time to do it.

Let me dive right into this new topic.  As we work to build more inclusive AP programs, we  probably encourage “weaker” students to take our class who do not arrive at our classroom doors with the skills and work habits that we would like to see.  My question for this post is “To what extent do you purposely create master learners in your AP classroom?”  Several years ago, I had an incredibly frustrating conversation with a veteran AP teacher who did not understand why we would want “lesser” students taking AP classes.  “Dixie, these simply are not AP students!” she shouted in exasperation.  “Exactly,” I replied.  “They’re not supposed to be AP students when they come in.  Your job is to make them AP students by the time they walk out the door in May!”  We all need to spend time reflecting on how we help students learn to learn in our various subject areas.

Just today, I assigned my calculus class to read a portion of their book.  Reading the textbook to glean information is an important skill that applies to all coursework.  Tomorrow, I plan to begin class by asking what they gained from the reading and what information needed further clarification.

I am trying to help students learn to frame good questions that will further their learning.  How many times have you had kids come in to class and declare “I don’t understand anything!”  They are asking for help in such an indirect way that they are unlikely to get any.  They need to be able to analyze their own thought process or problem solving and figure out exactly where things are breaking down.  A well-phrased question should be commended so that students realize you value their effort in trying to help themselves learn.

Students often complain that they don’t know how to study for a mathematics class.  (I have a feeling that other subjects get the same complaint.)  Before the first test of the year, I spend a few minutes asking students to brainstorm and then share with the class their study techniques.  Suggestions might include:

  • outlining the chapter on a single sheet of paper
  • doing the review at the end of the chapter in our book
  • going back to old notes to see what examples were worked or what points were emphasized
  • looking back at homework assignments and re-working a few of the problems from each
  • going back to old quizzes to see which problems you missed on those
  • making up your own version of what you think the test will be like
  • making flashcards with key vocabulary or concepts
  • finding someone weaker than you and tutoring them
  • finding someone stronger than you and asking them for help on the topics you are struggling with
  • going in for tutoring with the teacher several days prior to the test

I send these suggestions out to the parents via my email list as well and ask that they converse with their children about their efforts to prepare for the test.  Once the test has been taken, graded and returned to students, I ask them to analyze what they think was effective for them and where they saw opportunities to improve their performance in the future.

I mentioned notetaking in the list above.  Now, that seems to be a lost art!  My students seem to think that taking notes means copying down what I write on the board.  They often don’t think to include things that I have said or hints about what to look for in various problems.  I need to remember to take time to show examples of what I consider good notes.  Too many students have never seen what notes should look like, though more and more are coming to my class who are familiar with the Cornell notetaking system.  Google that and you should come up with some information.

Throughout my school, teachers in all subjects are also trying to get students to interact with the material by having students write more.  I am trying to do my part.  After showing the three different methods by which extrema can be justified, I asked them to write a brief essay discussing the relative merits, advantage and disadvantages of each method.  After plowing through a pile of essays this weekend, I now pity my English colleagues and also know that many students have mastered the ability to write a whole lot while saying very little.  This was a learning experience for me as much as it was for the students.

Reading the text, posing good questions, studying, notetaking, writing–all of these are skills that AP teachers claim to value and that we would want all of our students to have.  If that’s true, then do we spend some time helping students to master these skills?  These are not innate talents; these are things that must be learned.  Part of our responsibility as AP teachers is to specifically teach these skills.  Long after they have forgotten the names, dates or important theorems that we taught, they will still be using the tools of the master learner that we provided them.  I hope you will discuss this idea of how to create master learners with other AP teachers in your building.

Thanks for reading and I promise not to wait so long between posts again!

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