Helping Your Students to Become More Effective and Efficient Learners

Helping Your Students to Become More Effective and Efficient Learners
Joanne Holladay, TA Program Coordinator

In your position as an AI or TA, your primary task is to help students learn course content. Often times we may not know the best ways to go about this for a couple of reasons. First, we don’t think about how we learn. Our learning skills and strategies are already so automatic that we should consider making a thoughtful examination of how we go about being successful in our own classes. Second, research supports that when we develop considerable expertise in our chosen field, it may actually become more difficult to communicate course content to novice learners. In addition, some TAs or AIs might also believe that it is not possible to teach a student to improve his or her learning skills; either they have them or they don’t. How many times have you heard TAs or professors lament that students should have learned these skills in high school?

In fact, the expectations of college courses are different than high school. Therefore, the learning strategies are also different. Students can definitely develop and improve upon their own strategies for learning and you can help to facilitate that process.

Learning Goals
What are the goals of learning? Oftentimes, freshmen think that there is only one kind of learning (usually knowledge or comprehension) and are caught off guard by exam questions that ask them to apply or analyze the material. This is one of the primary differences in the expectations of college courses compared to high school.

According to Benjamin Bloom, the goals of learning in the cognitive domain can be classified from basic to complex. His Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain helps us as instructors to guide students in developing appropriate learning strategies. Appropriate strategies depend on the learning task as well as on the student, so plan to expose students to a variety of strategies during the semester. As you read the taxonomy below:

  • determine what the professor expects of the students (Or, if you're an AI, what you expect). What are his or her goals? Frequently these are reflected in how the students are tested.

  • keep in mind that testing at the higher levels does not preclude acquisition of the information at the lower levels. In order to answer an analytical question, students still must have their facts straight.

  • finally, study the examples of the appropriate learning strategies for each level. Would these be appropriate in your field? What would you add? Which of these works for you?

Print up Bloom’s Taxonomy and keep it handy to share with students. It provides an invaluable tool for exam preparation and exam analysis.



KNOWLEDGE (rote memory, recall of specifics) define, describe, enumerate, identify, label, list Rehearsal strategies: Highlight key vocabulary from text or lecture notes, generate flash cards, devise mnemonic devices.
COMPREHENSION (basic understanding, putting an idea into your own words) discuss, explain, restates, traces Explain a concept to a classmate; associate material with prior knowledge; summarize key concepts from lecture notes and compare to a "model."
APPLICATION (applying a general principle to a new and concrete situation) illustrate, classify, compute, predict, relate, solve, utilize Generate original examples; design and complete classification systems; solve and analyze new problems; predict test questions.
ANALYSIS (breaking the information into component parts in order to examine it and develop divergent conclusions) contrast, generalize, illustrate, diagram, differentiate, outline Generate comparison and contrast lists and use these to predict test questions; identify themes or trends from text or case studies; organize material in more than one way.

SYNTHESIS (creatively or divergently applying prior knowledge and skills to produce a new or original whole)

Categorize, contrast, design, formulate, generate, design a model, reconstruct Predict test questions and outline the answers; locate evidence to support a thesis; generate a thesis to support certain evidence.
(judging the value of material based on informed personal values/opinions resulting in an end product without a distinct right or wrong answer)
appraise, conclude, justify, criticize, defend, support List supporting evidence; listing refuting evidence, generate concept maps, debate; find weaknesses in other arguments.

For all of these learning goals, the use of questioning strategies is invaluable. Questioning provides immediate feedback for students and generating answers clarifies and deepens the memory trace. In addition, asking questions similar to test questions provides students with practice similar to the exam. Such questions as, "What is this an example of?" How would I explain this to my eighth grade brother? How does this relate to what I know? Why did the author choose this example? How is this theory different from that one? How would I organize this material to make sense to me?" These are process questions, designed to get students to think about their own learning. Such questions promote metacognition or students’ ability to monitor their own thinking processes.

Now, with all these good ideas, how can you actually get students to acquire these learning strategies?

According to Bandura, the best instructional strategies for teaching cognitive skills are to provide modeling and guided practice with feedback. Later in the semester, students will need less feedback from you, and will be more able to accomplish tasks on their own. In your labs or discussion sections, you should have many opportunities to provide this modeling and feedback. The following ideas will help you get started as you think about the best way to introduce appropriate strategies in your classes.

  • Recommend and illustrate these when you work with students during office hours.
  • Provide models in class of effective outlines, summaries, charts, concept maps. Then ask students to generate their own.
  • Assign small groups in class to complete some of these activities. Circulate between the groups to guide and give feedback.
  • Give a brief practice test and provide time to discuss learning strategies useful for test preparation.
  • Give students class time to compare lecture notes, generate possible test questions, or solve problems in groups. Alternatively, or additionally, recommend study groups for these activities.
  • Have students suggest the best way to learn new material.
  • Administer a pre-test survey to assess students’ readiness.
  • Administer a post-exam survey to analyze their efforts.

Students will need time and effort to learn these new approaches to learning. But as they become more familiar with the strategies and find what works for them, they will improve their efficiency and effectiveness in studying. They will also see you as an ally in the learning process as you help them to build their strategies for success, not only in this course, but in the future.

Thanks to last year's Interim TA Program Coordinator, Dr. Michelle Achacoo, for contributing to this article.


Bandura, A., Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social-Cognitive Theory, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1986.

Bloom, Benjamin, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, New York, McKay, 1956.


Services for TAs at the Center for Teaching Effectiveness

Seminars: We recently completed our Good Beginnings Seminar for New TAs. For your reference, some of those materials will soon appear on-line (

In January, we will again offer a seminar for experienced TAs and AIs to help them hone and develop their skills as instructors. This newsletter will keep you informed about the seminar. If you’re an experienced TA, please consider contributing to the planning process or presenting a session. Contact Joanne Holladay ( for more information.

Departmental Consultations: Would you like to see changes in the TA experience in your department? Get more feedback on your own teaching? Contact Joanne Holladay, TA Program Coordinator,( or 232-1775). She would be happy to reply to your e-mails or meet with you or a group of TAs to brainstorm ways to enhance teaching or improve learning.

Do you want additional ideas on teaching and learning? Check out the CTE web site at Here you'll find suggestions on everything from how to encourage student participation to methods for assigning grades.

Finally, do something for yourself. Check out the self-help opportunities through the Counseling Center's Food for Thought groups:


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