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Conversation #54: Saundra McGuire on Teaching Students to Learn

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Saundra McGuire

A conversation with Saundra McGuire on teaching, learning, and teaching students to learn.

Dr. Saundra Yancy McGuire is the Director Emerita of the Center for Academic Success and retired Assistant Vice Chancellor and Professor of Chemistry at Louisiana State University. Prior to joining LSU, she spent eleven years at Cornell University, where she received the coveted Clark Distinguished Teaching Award. She has delivered keynote addresses or presented workshops at over 250 institutions in 43 states and eight countries. Her latest book, Teach Students How to Learn, was released in October 2015 and is now in its ninth printing. The most recent of her numerous awards is the 2017 American Chemical Society Award for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students to Pursue Careers in the Chemical Sciences (ACS). She also received the 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Lifetime Mentor Award and the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. She is an elected Fellow of the ACS, the AAAS and the Council of Learning Assistance and Developmental Education Associations (CLADEA). In November 2007 the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring was presented to her in a White House Oval Office Ceremony. She received her B.S. degree, magna cum laude, from Southern, her Master’s from Cornell University and her Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee, where she received the Chancellors Citation for Exceptional Professional Promise. She is married to Dr. Stephen C. McGuire, a professor of physics at Southern. They are the parents of Dr. Carla McGuire Davis and Dr. Stephanie McGuire, and the doting grandparents of Joshua, Ruth, Daniel, and Joseph Davis.

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Dr. Elizabeth Yost-Hammer: Hello, this is Elizabeth Yost-Hammer and today I’m talking with Dr. Saundra Yancy-McGuire, who is the director emerita of the Center for Academic Success and a retired assistant Vice Chancellor and professor of Chemistry at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She spent her career working on improving student learning and has presented keynote addresses for workshops in over 100 events, in 38 states, and several international venues. She has recently published a book, Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation. Dr. McGuire, thank you very much for being with us today.

Dr. Saundra Yancy-McGuire: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to this.

Dr. Hammer: So, I thought we would start today by just having you share your story. How did you go from becoming a chemist and working in Chemistry to writing a book on student learning?

Dr. McGuire: Yes, great question and a lot of people ask that. Actually, I never did work as an academic chemist. My first year in graduate school at Cornell, where I did intend to do a PhD in Chemistry and become a research Chemist. I was a teaching assistant and I fell in love with teaching and helping students learn. In fact, it was during that semester when I started holding voluntary weekly review sessions for anyone in the course who wanted to come because as a teaching assistant, we sat through all of the lectures so that we can give a consistent message as TAs. It was very clear to me as I was sitting through the lectures that  if I didn’t already understand a lot of these concepts there’s no way that I would be learning it from the way I was seeing it in lecture. It wasn’t the lecturers fault. He was a brilliant lecturer. There was so much information between the lines. There were so many concepts that students needed to understand that I knew they didn’t know. That I figured if they did know it, they would be successful. I started doing these review sessions and the kids did wonderfully well. They enjoyed Chemistry. It was really that first semester in graduate school where I decided to switch over and do my graduate degrees in Chemical Education because I was really interested in how we could improve student learning and also improve the way we teach that would be much more likely to produce the learning we were looking for.      

Dr. Hammer: That’s so interesting to me because I share that story. So,  I’m a social psychologist by training and I remember teaching my first class, my first social psych class. I thought, “This is the job I love.”  I liked social psych too, but I liked teaching. How did your interest in, specifically, metacognition come? I guess would start by defining and telling our listeners what metacognition is.   

Dr. McGuire: Yes, metacognition defined very simply is thinking about your own thinking. When I explain it to students, I say, “Well, it’s kind of like, if you had a big brain outside of your brain looking at what your brain is doing and it's asking your brain questions. Its saying, ‘Do you really understand this information or did you just memorize it last night because the test is today?’”  It’s saying you have a paper due in a couple weeks and do you plan to talk to the instructor, maybe go to the writing center. Start thinking about how you are going to put your ideas together or do you just plan to whip it out the night before just like you did in high school? It’s really analyzing the thought process. That’s a little bit simpler definition than  Flavell, the psychologists who took on the term, has stated it. When I talk with students and with faculty, I like to make it simple because I think if we can simplify terms that students will understand what we’re talking about and will be able to incorporate that. Now the way that I came across this construct as a way of helping students understand their role in the learning process really developed over a number of years. Over the years, I had gone to a lot of faculty development workshops, wonderful workshops, like the ones that are presented by your Center  for Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development. They were great workshops! But, they all focused on ways that we, as faculty, could improve our pedagogy., our teaching. They were wonderful but it always seemed to me that they were leaving out 50% of the equation.  We could be the best faculty on the planet, but if students don’t come to the table understanding what their role in the learning process is, then we are not going to see the kind of learning gains we could if students understood that and were partners with us in this process. When I started looking at ways to help students exactly what their role was and how they could take control of that role, be in control of their own learning, be self-directed, independent learning. This term, metacognition, kept jumping out at me. I was really intrigued by it because I thought that it would get students attention in a way that study skills would not. Very often, we say, “We’re going to teach students study skills.” I have found that student’s eyes kind of glaze over when we talk about study skills. When we talk about metacognition and the way that we can teach them how the findings of cognitive science research have improved the way that we can think about learning and has given us specific tools that we can use to improve our learning and understanding and academic success. I find that they are much more interested and engaged in that.

Dr. Hammer: Yeah, I think that’s interesting, framing it that way opposed to study skills which can sound like a deficiency they have. This can be a new skill to build. Have you met points of resistance? Has there been points of resistance as in, “I already know this” or “Of course I know about my own learning?”

Dr. McGuire: Yes, that’s an excellent question. I really haven’t and that was very surprising and encouraging to me. When I first started talking with students, which is now for over ten years, I really didn't think it was going to work. I thought that the strategies were too simple. I didn’t think students would do it. I didn’t think they’d be that interested. The most surprising thing to me is how students are really very interested in this and will implement the strategy. When they do, they pretty much immediate success. In the book, I put a lot of before and after examples where students are making 20’s and 30’s before learning about metacognition and specific learning strategies and then going up to 80’s, 90’s, and even 100’s. There really has not been resistance from students. The resistance I sometimes get is from faculty. Well actually, it comes in two categories. One is faculty saying, “We don’t have time to do this. It’s not my job. Students should have learned this in high school. I have too much Chemistry to cover. I don’t have time to cover this with students.” The implementation of the intervention that I encourage is just taking one class session, one fifty minute class session, after students have gotten results back after their first exam to go over these concepts and go over these strategies. If we do it before, students really aren’t interested. They don’t think they need it. They think, “I did great in high school. I don’t know why she’s talking to me about learning strategies. I’m going to do fine.” It’s actually when they get their results back from the first test that they see that, “Oh, I didn’t make that A I thought I was on my way to making.” So, they’re a lot more receptive to that. When I talk with faculty, I like for us to think about it as, not that our job is to cover our subject matter, but it is to uncover the process of learning so that students will be partnering with us to learn the information in our discipline. We can actually cover all the things we wanted to cover in a more efficient manner because now the students know what their role in the process is. The other resistance that I get from faculty is that “They think the same think that I thought. This is just too easy. This is not going to work. This doesn’t make sense that I could take one fifty-minute class period to discuss these with students and see dramatic improvement.” To those faculty, I say, “Please just try it. What can you lose? Just try it.” Many of them have done it and I get emails from faculty from all over the country saying, “Wow. This really did work. The average in my class significantly went up.” They’ll send me data. One of the things we’re finding is that the average on final exams is significantly higher when they introduce these strategies to students because now students are not memorizing information for specific tests and then forgetting it after the test, but they are involved in learning the concepts as the course goes along so that by the time they get to the final exam they have really retained most of the information so that was a pleasant surprise for most faculty. That’s the form of the resistance I get. Students, I don’t get resistance from students. They are fascinated by it and many students are frustrated that they are not getting the same results in college that they got in high school when using the strategies that they used then. I find that they are really hungry for an alternate way of looking at learning and additional strategies that they can use. I really don’t get a lot of resistance from students.

Dr. Hammer: Good, I like that philosophy of kind of meeting students where they are and getting out of that mindset that faculty have, and I have had as well, of: “I have to cover this content and forget about the learning. I’m covering the content.” The blending of those two things. You mentioned strategies at several points just then. I was wondering if you could give some specifics. Are you talking about what strategy teachers should be bringing into the classroom and talking to students about? If you could, give us some details on that.

Dr. McGuire: Absolutely. I just got a wonderful email last night from when I spoke at a University in California a month ago. I get this long email from a student who was trying the strategies and he was just saying that he was having great success and he was motivated. Well, it really starts with the way we introduce the idea to students and I like to use reflection questions. I find that rather than telling students what they need to do, if we ask a series of reflection questions that allows students to really compare and contrast what they’ve been doing previously to what we want them to start doing. It makes a big difference. For example, the two questions I like to start with are, “What’s the difference between studying and learning?” I find that most of the time, students haven’t really thought about this. You ask this question and they really do think about it. The most common answer I get from college students is they say, “Studying is just memorizing information for a test or a quiz, but learning is when I understand that information. I can apply it and I say, ‘Yes!’” Then, I say, “Up to this point, have you been more in study mode or learn mode?” They all say study mode because typically they don’t know there’s a learn mode to be in. The other question is, I’ll give you the short version. It’s basically, “Would you work harder if you were trying to make an ‘A’ on a test or if you had to teach the material that was going to be covered on that test to the class.” Of course, they all say, “Oh, I’ll work harder if I had to teach the material.” Then I ask, “Up to this point, have you been in make an ‘A’ on the test mode or teach the material mode?” and they’ve all been trying to make an ‘A’ on the test. That’s one of that strategies that when you are studying information, just pretend that you’re teaching it. I got students that will send me pictures of their stuffed animals that they are practicing teaching information to. One young lady said that she was teaching it to her dog. I always like to give students a why of things. The reason that works is because all of us have had instances where we thought we understood something totally, but then we start explaining it to someone and we realize, “Ah, I don’t quite understand this.” Of course, I do this in the form of a question. I ask students has this ever happened and they all say, “Yeah, it happens all the time!” The only way to know what the brain really understands and what it doesn’t is to practice retrieving that information by pretending that you’re teaching it. If you don’t really understand it, you’re going to get stuck at some point. That’s when you know that you’ve got to go back and look at that information again. I’ll say to students, “Now if you haven’t been in that process of explaining that information to someone. When would you have found out that you totally understand it?” and they immediately say, “On the test.” That’s one of the strategies. Another one is I love to teach students about Bloom’s Taxonomy and most of us, as faculty, have learned about Bloom’s Taxonomy because we have to write students’ learning outcomes that in many cases, we are tying them to the various levels of Bloom’s. Very few of us have taught Bloom’s Taxonomy to students. I find that teaching students Bloom’s Taxonomy is really the student’s window into what we as faculty mean when we talk about higher order thinking skills. When I teach students Bloom’s Taxonomy, I ask them, typically, up to that point what’s the highest level that they’ve been operating at. They will say either remembering or understanding. Then I’ll ask after they get their results back from the first test so that they realize that they need it, “Yeah so now that you’re in college.” They will have had some experience in college. What do you think the lowest level going to be that you’ve got to operate at to make the A’s that you’re totally capable of making in college? They will say either analysis or higher. Then. they see that they’ve got to move themselves higher. Then, it’s a very simple tool that we teach them. We just call it the study cycle that involves five steps. Preview information that’s going to be covered in class before you go to class, then you HAVE to go to class, every class. Faculty always laugh when I say that, but because students’ experience in high school has been that they didn’t need to go to class to make A’s on their test because it’s always going to be a review the day before or a review sheet. That’s the second step. Mentally, not just physically, and if they’ve done the previewing then they could do that. The next thing is to review what happened in class as soon after class as possible so that you can start information moving from just the short term memory into the long term moving where you can be able to retrieve it later. Then, we talk about intense study sessions where we show them how to structure an hour of study. Take a minute or so to decide what you’re going to accomplish, then study with focus and action for thirty, forty, fifty minutes or so. Turn off the cellphone, turn off Facebook. After they’ve done that, review what they just studied, take a break, and then come back and do another one if they have time. It’s just those simple strategies that students have never been taught that they implement and find great success.

Dr. Hammer: Yes, having introduce my students to the study cycle, I can vouch that it is true. Students who take it seriously do switch better and are so surprised that they haven’t been doing it all along. They say, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?!”

Dr. McGuire: That’s really why I wrote the book because it is so, so, so simple for us to do this. I never knew how to do this. In fact, it was when I moved to LSU and there was a wonderful learning center there already and I became director of that center. I didn’t know these strategies. I started to learn them, implement them, and was very pleasantly shocked at how very much better and how quickly students improved. I wanted other faculty members to know how simple it is. So, that’s why we put the strategies in the book.

Dr. Hammer: On this podcast, we will put a link to your book. We will put a link to anything we referenced here, including the study cycle sheet I know that you have. I do want to back up real quick to the first strategy you mentioned about teaching others. You kind of talked about it in the context of studying or learning for the material but it also makes me think about classroom assessment and formative assessment. How important that can be. DeAngelo and Cross. DeAngelo did the forward to your book? Is that correct?

Dr. McGuire: He did, yes.

Dr. Hammer: Yeah, which is huge. So, as a note to the listeners we’ll put a link to their book. They’ve got some really neat activities that you can do in the classroom to also get student doing these metacognitive strategies like directive paraphrasing.

Dr. McGuire: Yes, one-minute essay, absolutely. Tom and I have done workshops together and we’re great fans of each other's’ work. Absolutely. Who knew that it was that simple? The students didn’t know that increasing their learning was that simple. As a faculty member, I never knew that it was so easy to increase the active learning in my class just by using these very simple strategies.


Dr. Hammer: It teaches the content better. The faculty I work with, I’ve got so much science to cover I can’t do this. We actually cover the content better when it’s active like that.

Dr. McGuire: It’s much more fun as a faculty member, for me not to be the “sage on the stage” but to be “guide on the side” and to see students actively engaged in their own learning. It’s much more satisfying.

Dr. Hammer: You’ve given some example of students with their own experiences. I wondered if you had other examples that you wanted to share of seeing these strategies in action and either with faculty or with students over the years.

Dr. McGuire: I’ll give you two. I’ll give you one with a student and one with a faculty. In fact, it was a graduate student at LSU who had actually done his undergraduate work at Xavier. This young man started at Xavier with each course at the developmental level. He did well there. In fact, he became a tutor there. When he got to LSU, we have these cumulative exams in Chemistry. He was having difficulty with the cumulative exams. He had only passed one his first year. We give eight a year and they have to pass six during the first two years or they’re kicked out of the PhD program. I started working with this young man. The next year, although the passed one out of eight the first year, he didn’t even have to take all eight the second year. He passed five out of seven and he passed the December exam with the highest score in the group. The strategy he used, he told me, was that he was pretending that he was teaching the information. I also talked with students about doing their homework differently. Not using examples, not going back and rereading the text to do the homework. Learn the information and do the homework as if it’s a test or a quiz. He was doing this. Then, when he graduated with his PhD in malleable chemistry, he went back to Xavier. He started teaching his students these strategies and he would sent me emails. Now, he’s in Rochester. He does them everywhere. He continues to send me emails from students. This one series of emails that I share with audiences at my workshops. This young man had emailed him and asked him to mentor him because he wasn’t doing very well. He was making C’s. A week later, he had significantly increased his performance on his chemistry exam. Couple weeks later, he significantly increased his performance in chemistry. He was absolutely thrilled. This young man did get into medical school and he’s probably a physician by now. That’s one of my favorite student stories. One of my favorite instructor stories is an organic chemistry professor at the University of Connecticut. She emailed me and sent me her scores. She does a twenty minute intervention after the first test, teaching them Bloom’s Taxonomy and putting together a series of what she calls “super-strategies.” Things like doing the homework differently. On the final exam, her students scored in the 80s. Whereas, in previous years, before she was teaching this, the final exam averages had been in the 60s.

Dr. Hammer: Wow, wow… That’s an amazing difference

Dr. McGuire: It really is. I continue to be amazed by this. It just works.

Dr. Hammer: As we’re thinking about the people who might be listening to this podcast, is your advice, for using the strategies, different for any different teaching styles or season faculty versus brand-new faculty or different disciplines or does it cut across all those populations?

Dr. McGuire: It actually cuts across, because I think there’s a subtle difference between this approach and what we typically tell faculty to do which is we’re suggesting significant changes that they may make in their pedagogy.This, on the other hand, is just teaching students how to learn in any environment. We’re really focusing on how to help students learn then there really isn’t a different focus. Some faculty say, “Well, I don’t really give tests. I give projects that students have to do.” I think even if you are in a course that doesn’t have test, that has projects, still try to get students to think  at a deeper and higher level. Both deeper and a higher level on Bloom’s. I think that teaching them about metacognition and even using the term metacognition. The research shows that when we use this term with students, they really do understand and appreciate what we’re talking about in a way that’s very different than saying, “You need to study differently.” Teaching them that you do have control over how their using their brains, I think is very important. I really don’t see that there's a huge difference in the way that we are presented for different disciplines. I think the way that students apply it in different disciplines and different course structures would be a little bit different, but the way as we faculty present it really wouldn’t have to change significantly.

Dr. Hammer: Thanks. As we wrap up here, I wonder, what would be your last parting words you would like to say or take home points you would like for faculty to get?

Dr. McGuire: I think my major take-home point is that we really can teach students how to learn. That’s the title of the book and that’s a little bit ironic. When I first heard that phrase, “teach students how to learn”, I thought it was the most nonsensical phrase on the planet to me. I’m thinking, “teach students how to learn!? How’s that going to work? They don’t know how to learn. If you teach them how to learn, of course it’s not going to work, because they don’t know how to learn. So, how are you going to teach somebody how to learn? Now, I understand that means teach them that learning is a process and what the steps are in that process. It is simpler than you might imagine. I would love to encourage faculty, just try it! I think there still are a lot of faculty that hear about it but don’t try it because they don’t think it’s going to work. I really want to encourage everyone to please just try it. I think they’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was to see how wonderfully it worked and they way students so appreciate when we take the time to do it.

Dr. Hammer: Thank you. Well, Dr. McGuire, I have learned from you the passion. I continue to learn from you. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.

Dr. McGuire: Thank you, Dr. Hammer. I’m happy to do this. I’ve learned a lot from you also. I love continuing the learning process so that we’re all life long learners.

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