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Succeeding during the Pandemic, Part 3: Cognitive and Metacognitive Learning Strategies

As covered in Part 1 of this series, learning remotely during the COVID 19 pandemic poses several challenges for graduate students. While some of these challenges are unique to the pandemic, others derive from problems posed by graduate study in general, such as how to effectively read and “digest” large volumes of academic text. Some relevant strategies are discussed briefly in “Managing Time and Stress.” But now might be a good time to review learning strategies and study skills in more detail.

An analogy from athletics can help explain why graduate students should review seemingly elementary topics like study skills. John Wooden, the legendary college basketball coach, started off each season by reminding players how to properly tie their shoes to avoid sprains and blisters. The point of this exercise was to ensure that all players, regardless of talent or previous experience, had solid fundamentals. Similarly, it can be helpful to review fundamental study skills at any stage of one’s academic career.

How to Read in Graduate School

A graduate student’s first response to this topic might be: “What the heck? I already know how to read! How could I have made it into grad school if I didn’t?” This is an understandable reaction. However, keep in mind that:

  1. Professors often expect grad students to be able to read in highly specialized ways. These ways are probably different from how you approached texts in your undergrad studies, and are certainly different from reading for pleasure.
  2. Professors rarely teach these specialized reading skills directly. They may assume that you’ve already been taught these skills, or they may expect these skills to develop “organically” as you continue through your studies (it’s not their fault; their professors probably did not explicitly instruct them in these reading skills either).

Often, students do acquire these specialized reading skills organically and painlessly. However, when they don’t, both the professors and students may not know how to proceed. Students may not understand what is expected of them. Professors may misinterpret students’ bewilderment as laziness or as a failure to budget adequate time for reading assignments (see Managing Time and Stress). Such problems are often confounded for first-generation students and other students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who usually cannot seek supplementary academic support at home (under “Further Reading” below, see the piece by Kenneth Oldfield for a personal account of succeeding in academia as a first-generation student). 

For all of these reasons, it will be useful to review some strategies for reading effectively in graduate school:

“Read strategically, not linearly,” as Miriam E. Sweeney writes in an excellent blog post. When we read a text for pleasure, we tend to start at the beginning and read through to the end. In grad study, we’re not usually reading for pleasure, so the approach should be different. For example:

  • When reading a journal article, it’s often a good idea to first read the introduction and abstract, then jump ahead to the conclusion. These sections will usually give you a broad overview of the article’s argument and findings. Based on this information, you can decide whether you need to read the rest of the article. For example, if you are assembling articles for a literature review, it is not necessary or even desirable to read the full text of every article. Instead, you will peruse articles to decide which ones are suitable for your project.
  • When reading an academic book, the introduction chapter, preface, or Chapter 1 might play the same role as the introduction section does in a journal article. That is, an author will usually summarize the entire argument of a scholarly book in the introductory chapter. Thus, you might start by reading the first and last chapters of a scholarly book to decide whether or not the book is useful for your project or research paper. You might also skim the intermediary chapters to get further information.

Note that these strategies can work whether you’re conducting research (e.g. constructing a literature review for a thesis) or completing assigned reading for a class. Either way, previewing the intro and conclusion first can help you understand the “big picture” before you read the middle portion of the text.

Read actively and take notes. This strategy is especially powerful for tackling assigned readings for a class. Beth Azar, writing for the American Psychological Association, offers an excellent summary of one highly effective note-taking strategy, the “SQ3R” (or “survey, question, read, recite, review”) method:

  • “Survey the chapter by scanning headings, subheads, graphics, captions, and bolded or italicized words. Skim the beginning and end of the chapter.
  • Question: Write down questions for each section, based on what you skimmed.
  • Read each section and look for answers to your questions.
  • Recite: Look away from the text and say aloud the answers to your questions. Write your answers down, providing examples to support them.
  • Review your notes: Identify the main points of the assignment and write a brief summary.”

Similar to the study cycle (discussed below), SQ3R can improve both your learning of course material and your critical thinking skills. It forces you to think about whether you understand the text and to pose questions regarding the text’s argument and key points.

Read critically and interrogate the text. As Christopher S. Rose writes in his helpful Grad School Survival Guide, you shouldn’t approach advanced scholarly materials the same way that you approach an introductory textbook. For example, if you were consulting a textbook called Introduction to Fieldwork in Anthropology to learn how ethnographic research is conducted, you probably wouldn’t spend much time critiquing the textbook. That’s not your purpose; you’re consulting the book for elementary information. But in most graduate courses, the professors do expect you to approach the material with a critical mindset. As Rose writes, “Stop seeing the material as a series of facts to be memorized, written by an infallible author.” Instead, see the material the way your fellow academics do: as “an argument-driven thesis written by a scholar whose work may not be perfect.” Ask questions of the text: What evidence does the author use to defend his/her claims? What kind of evidence is it? (e.g. empirical data, logical reasoning, appeals to authority). What is the author’s core argument, and is that argument sound or rational? What assumptions has the author made? What perspective or framework is the author working within? What groups or stakeholders might benefit from the ideas or perspectives championed by this author? What might other authors that I’ve read say about this author’s argument? Asking questions like these will not only improve your performance as a student, it will sharpen your overall skills as a thinker and writer.

Taken together, the advice in this section will help elevate your critical reading skills to the advanced levels required for graduate study.

Using Metacognitive Strategies to Excel Academically

This section is based mostly on insights from the writings of Saundra Yancy McGuire, who has devoted most of her career to helping students achieve academically by improving their metacognition. Drawing on the work of John Flavell, McGuire defines metacognition as “the ability to:

  • think about your own thinking
  • be consciously aware of yourself as a problem solver
  • monitor, plan, and control your mental processing
  • accurately judge your level of learning” (from Teach Yourself to Learn, cited in “Further Reading” below).

Most students outside of education or psychology may not have encountered much about metacognition in their academic careers. However, metacognitive strategies are important, because they can help you to maximize your learning, make the learning process quicker by improving your efficiency, and generally “work smarter, not harder.” What follow are some ways to apply metacognitive concepts to improve your study skills in graduate school—an especially important goal given the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Understand Bloom’s taxonomy.

Bloom’s taxonomy is a hierarchy of thinking skills and associated learning objectives (or tasks), ranging from basic to advanced. It was first introduced by Benjamin Bloom in the 1950s, and has been updated multiple times since then. A contemporary version lists the following levels:

  1. Remembering – Tasks at this level involve recalling facts, concepts, or other information. Example “remembering” question/task: When did the French Revolution take place?
  2. Understanding – Tasks at this level involve comprehension of how ideas, concepts, processes, or theories work. Example “understanding” question/task: Explain the key concepts of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
  3. Applying - Tasks at this level involve using theories and concepts to solve problems, carry out procedures, or make sense of complex phenomena. Example “applying” question/task: Apply Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption to make sense of current American consumer behavior.
  4. Analyzing – Tasks at this level involve dissecting a topic or process into its constituent parts and making sense of these parts (or assigning meaning to them) separately. Example “analyzing” question/task: Identify and discuss the various political perspectives depicted and satirized in Ellison’s The Invisible Man.
  5. Evaluating. Tasks at this level involve forming value judgments about material, comparing it to other material to make assessments about its quality or effectiveness. Example “evaluating” question/task: How convincing is Chalmers’s argument against physicalism?
  6. Creating – Tasks at this level involve generating original ideas, concepts, syntheses, or creative works. Example “creating” question/task: Based on your preliminary review of the literature, propose a tentative model for reducing the size of the homeless population of South Los Angeles.

While nearly all educators are familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy, it is rarely presented to students as a learning tool. However, it is useful for all students to know. One obvious reason is that it helps students understand what professors expect of them. In most high schools, for example, the tasks expected of students stay within the “remembering” and “understanding” levels. In your undergraduate education, you might have been expected to function at all levels up to “evaluating,” but you were probably expected to create original work only rarely, if ever (depending on your field of study). However, in most graduate programs, you are expected to function well at all of Bloom’s levels. At the very least, you are expected to be working toward creating original work in the relatively near future. Knowing these facts can motivate you to strive toward higher levels of accomplishment, and it can help you understand what your professors mean when they urge you to “go deeper” in your analysis, for example, or to “be more specific” in your written explanations.

Think like a professor.

Imagine the following scenarios:

  1. Your professor assigns you a chapter to read on Monday and tells you that you’ll be quizzed on the material on Friday.
  2. Your professor assigns you a chapter to read on Monday and tells you that you’ll have to teach that material to the class on Friday.

Which scenario will you study harder for? For most people, the obvious answer is B. If you fail a quiz, that’s a private matter (or, at least, one known only to you and your professor). But if you fail to teach the material well, you risk looking foolish in front of your classmates. Also, since your classmates will be depending on you to teach them, you’ll feel even more responsible for doing an effective job.

You can use these hypothetical scenarios to your advantage. When you study for an exam, or read a difficult text, pretend that you’re preparing to teach the material. Doing so will force you to ascend to higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. To teach material properly, you’ll certainly need to recall and explain it. But you also might need to apply it to a concrete example, or analyze it to highlight key concepts, or evaluate it in light of other material covered in the class. Even if you aren’t required to present to the class, preparing for these imaginary teaching tasks provides much deeper learning than mere “cramming,” which usually reaches no higher than the “understanding” level.

Use the “study cycle.”

The study cycle is a powerful tool for acing your graduate classes. Using it can improve your comprehension, consolidate your memories, and elevate you to higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. The study cycle has the following stages:

1. Preview. Spend a few minutes (about 15 minutes is ideal, but even 5 can be effective) previewing what will be covered in the next class. You can consult the class syllabus, for example, or look through the upcoming textbook chapter. Pay attention to headings, subheadings, diagrams, figures, and key terms. Get a feel for the main topics and issues that will be covered. Previewing is especially important immediately before class, but it can (and should) be done often.

2. Attend class. In class, take notes on key concepts. Note-taking helps you to stay focused and to form new memories. Get involved in class discussion and lectures. Ask questions. Doing so keeps you alert and aids in the learning process for you and your classmates.

3. Review. As soon as possible after the class, but within the next 24 hours at most, return to the notes that you took during class, reminding yourself of key concepts and checking yourself for comprehension. This process does not have to be time-consuming: 10-15 minutes is often enough

4. Study. Throughout the week, schedule multiple study sessions (anywhere from 30-60 minutes) to study course material. Studying differs depending on your field of study and your personal preferences, and can involve:

  • reading the textbook or lecture notes;
  • writing or re-writing notes or explanations about the material;
  • solving exercises or example problems;
  • drawing diagrams, concept maps, or other graphic organizers to help you make sense of difficult concepts;
  • quizzing yourself;
  • discussing material with friends or classmates;
  • drafting essays or other assignments. For classes that are mainly writing-based, you can replace “Study” with “Write” to form a “Writing Cycle” (See “Writing for Success” for more writing advice);
  • applying the SQ3R method discussed earlier;

and using any other techniques that increase your knowledge and build your confidence with the material.

Note that scheduling is a key part of the process. Just as you wouldn’t expect to meet fitness goals without scheduling workout sessions, you won’t meet your academic goals if you don’t schedule study time or writing sessions. However, avoid the “binge studying” or “binge writing” mentality. It may be unrealistic to expect to work 4 hours straight with no breaks. Instead, schedule both work time and break time (e.g. 60 minutes on, 30 minutes off) to maximize your efficiency and your sanity! See Part 1 along with Managing Time and Stress for more information.

5. Check. After you study each item or topic, ask yourself if you understand it well enough to teach it, as discussed in the previous section. If so, you can move on to the next topic. If not, identify your “weak areas” or areas of uncertainty, and study them more.

Repeat the study (and/or writing) cycle daily and weekly to master your course content and meet your academic goals.

Don’t rush to look up answers and solutions.

When studying a new topic, you will start by reading assigned materials (e.g. textbooks) and by examining good models of practice. For example, in STEM and other technical fields, you might begin by reading over solved sample exercises to understand some of the techniques that you’ll be expected to master. When writing, it’s also a good idea to read multiple texts similar to the ones you are expected to write; if you have to write a literature review, for instance, it’s a great idea to familiarize yourself with several examples of literature reviews in your field.

However, once you’ve gotten the hang of a new topic, problem-solving technique, or style of writing, it can be helpful to try to put it into practice without looking at any more examples or models. Unfortunately, many students find this process uncomfortable and give up too easily. For example, students of technical fields might be tempted to scour supplementary textbooks or search the internet for solutions to assigned problems. But doing so is usually a mistake. It robs you of the valuable learning process of struggling with the problem and trying to discover a solution on your own.

But how does one struggle fruitfully? That is, what if you’re completely stuck, and have no idea how to move forward? The mathematician George Polya had some excellent advice for such situations. When you’re stuck, Polya advised simply making your best guess at a solution. Then test it out. Does the guess succeed at solving the problem? Does it answer the question you set out to answer? If it does, great! You’re done. If, as is more likely, it doesn’t work completely, ask yourself: what does this wrong guess show me about the right solution? Does it lead to another potentially-fruitful guess? Does it put a limit on what kinds of answers can be right (and thus which kinds must be wrong)? Then, continue the process by guessing again. Proceeding in this way often helps students to “whittle away” at a problem until a proper solution emerges (see Polya’s book under “Further Reading” for other powerful problem solving strategies).

A version of this approach also works well with writing tasks. Students often ask questions like “what if I start my paper by stating a relevant statistic—would that work?” or “should I mention source X in section Y of my paper?” The answer to these questions is almost always, “it depends on how you do it.” The best advice is to simply try it out. Write the section in the way that you’re envisioning and see if it works. If it does, great! If not, you can probably still use elements of this first draft to develop an improved second draft. Or maybe the text that you wrote doesn’t work well in the current section of the paper, but will fit perfectly in another section. Such “experimental” writing is time-consuming and can be frustrating. But it is also one of the most effective ways to grow as a writer. It can be inspiring to remember that even famous literary masterpieces owe their existence to their authors’ willingness to experiment (and accept ruthless editing!).

Cultivate Relationships with Mentors.

As Roald Hoffman and Saundra Yancy McGuire write, mentoring relationships can aid learning in two powerful ways: “First, the student admires the mentor and wants to attain the mentor’s level of understanding. Second, the mentor can help the learner navigate boring or tough stages on the way to mastery.” In other words, mentors can help students develop the metacognitive skills needed for high-level mastery. For more info on finding and cultivating mentor-mentee relationships, see Finding Mentors on Campus.

Nurture a growth mindset.

As the work of Carol Dweck has demonstrated, how you view your potential for achievement often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, if you believe that your intellectual abilities were “fixed” at birth (perhaps by genetics or divinely-granted talent), this belief will put limits on your achievement. When you begin to struggle with an intellectual task, you’ll be more likely to give up, because you view your difficulties as evidence that you’re not innately smart enough. In addition, you’ll be less likely to take intellectual risks, for example by asking questions in class or by enrolling in a challenging course that might be outside of your academic “comfort zone.” If these risks lead to failures, they’ll reveal the “dirty secret” that you’re not “smart.” However, if you adopt a growth mindset about intelligence, if you believe that your abilities are not fixed at birth but instead can be developed and increased through effort, you will be more likely to achieve highly. To people with a growth mindset, academic difficulties are not a reflection of intelligence. They simply reveal areas for improvement. Such people are also less intimidated by risks because they are more comfortable with occasional failures. To them, imperfect performance on a task simply reveals the need to keep practicing. 

Dweck suggests the following tips for developing a growth mindset:

  • Embrace the power of “yet.” Instead of regarding an instance of low performance as a “failure,” reframe it as an instance of “not yet.” You have not yet learned what you set out to learn, or achieved what you set out to achieve. But if you stick with it, you can achieve these goals in the future.
  • Test out the growth mindset. Even if you’re not 100% convinced that your intelligence and abilities can be grown with effort, test out the concept for a semester. Try behaving as if intelligence and excellence were simply the result of effort, rather than any innate ability. You might be surprised at how much happier and more successful you become.
  • Although it might be counterintuitive, stop trying to feel smart, or trying to look smart, or valuing yourself for being smart. Instead, focus on growth. Pursue challenges that feel just beyond what you’re capable of doing right now. Seek out opportunities for personal development, especially if they feel intimidating.
  • Recognize that talent is not necessarily innate – it develops through practice. Research the life of a hero of yours, someone you admire for their high achievement. You might be surprised and inspired by (a) how much failure they had to experience before achieving success, and (b) how much hard work they had to put into developing their talents. You might be surprised to learn, for example, that Albert Einstein at one point failed out of high school, was unimpressive in graduate school, and did some of his best early research in his spare time while working a “dead-end” job.  
  • Pay attention to how you feel when someone does something better than you, or succeeds at something that you have not yet mastered. Do you feel inferior or upset? These emotions suggest that you might be thinking in terms of a fixed mindset. Instead, try to adopt a growth mindset by viewing successful people as inspiring role models to emulate. Success is not a finite resource or a zero-sum game, and another person’s success does not mean that you, by comparison, are a failure. In fact, your achievements and theirs are completely independent events (for more on conquering negative feelings, see Part 2).

Conclusion

In addition to the articles and books listed below, there are many excellent online videos of Saundra McGuire explaining the benefits of metacognitive approaches to learning (for example, here, here, and here). Consider watching some of these and adding their lessons to your intellectual toolkit. As Mark McDaniel writes in the introduction to McGuire’s Teach Yourself How to Learn (2018), educational institutions seem to have accepted the “flawed assumption” that people “know how to learn” without being taught how to do so. While this assumption makes little sense after a moment’s reflection (what other complicated process are people expected to master automatically, without any guidance?), it also points toward an inspiring truth: our learning and thinking skills, like any other skills, can be developed through practice. This is good news for students who may struggle with online learning during the pandemic. By practicing the research-backed strategies discussed here, all students can improve their abilities and make consistent progress.

Further Reading

McGuire, S. Y., & McGuire, S. (2018). Teach yourself how to learn: Strategies you can use to ace any course at any level. Stylus.

Hoffman, R. and McGuire, S. (2010, Sept.- Oct.). Learning and teaching strategies. American Scientist. https://www.americanscientist.org/article/learning-and-teaching-strategies

Oldfield, K. (2007). Humble and hopeful: Welcoming first-generation poor and working-class students to college. About Campus, 11(6), 2-12. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227736689_Humble_and_hopeful_Welcoming_first-generation_poor_and_working-class_students_to_college

Polya, G. (2015). How to solve it. Princeton University Press.

Ross, P. E. (2006). The expert mind. Scientific Americanhttps://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-expert-mind/ (also available here). 

Sills, J., Hoffman, R., & MGuire, S. Y. (2009, Sept. 4). Teaching and learning strategies that work. Science, 325(5945), 1203-1204. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40301712