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Learn HOW to Learn: The Legacy of Mr. Coombs

Submitted by Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy on March 2nd, 2013

TeacherAt this time of the school year–after first semester grades and well-into the next semester–I receive increased requests for tutor referrals.  Parents and students naturally assume that a less than expected grade in a class is due to content deficit–that somehow the student just “isn’t getting it”; “it” being the ideas and concepts presented in class. The actual issue may be more layered than simply lacking knowledge.  The assumption makes sense given what to know can be the focus of any daily classroom lesson, under the expectation that students already know how to learn information–i.e. the steps, the practices, the processes of ingraining new information into one’s intellect, or at least remember until the next test.  So, how to learn may not be emphasized in the classroom.  I mean, how many of us were explicitly taught notetaking, effective techniques for using a calendar to organize deadlines, reading skills to interpret both literary and historical writing, test taking skills to answer multiple choice math questions vs. the calculate the problem on your own math question, study techniques to review for a test, a process for breaking down projects into smaller action steps, the writing process to compose essays and papers? All of these skills are HOW we learn, WHAT we know.  (Trust me, I’ve tried the osmosis learning technique where I fall asleep with my forehead squarely placed on the textbook, even drooling, doesn’t get the info into the ol’ noggin. My “efforts” just earned me a big red spot in the center of my face, the tell-tale sign of late night studying, and some teasing when I showed up bleary-eyed for my final.)

I, fortunately and only in retrospect (like 20 years retrospect), was taught these skills explicitly and very early (and there is a pun intended, because my study skills class was during zero period, starting at 7:30 am) the very first semester as a high school freshman–and lucky I did.  But, I’m getting ahead of the story.  Mr. Coombs taught the class, cheerily as I remember, teaching us shorthand, that he likened to the word truncation on license plates, for notetaking and frankly pointed out what information I needed to listen for, during class lectures, watching VHS videos (yes, I went to high school in the late 80’s) and from readings. He taught me what information was going to help me earn grades I expected from myself, as well as manage the pile of work he knew I would be expected to complete for the advanced classes I was about to undertake. He also required us to turn in weekly calendars, checking if we wrote down every assignment, and giving me space to try out techniques for completing the “to-do” lists I created, which helped me transition from paper organizers to my Franklin planner to Outlook for my company.  My advantage, and one that served me all the way through graduate school at Harvard, was someone took the time to teach me HOW to learn; someone didn’t just expect that by assigning me a pile of work, I’d somehow find a way to manage by my fourteen year old self.  Many thanks, Mr. Coombs.

Before running to a tutor, stop and ask a few more questions about the challenges of a class or why a student isn’t earning an expected grade–especially in a subject “that’s always come easy.”  The interaction that the student is making with the content can need adjusting; for example, maybe the teacher is an auditory learner and naturally teaches by lecture, where the student is more visual and needs written diagrams to understand. Find your own Mr. Coombs (and he’s long retired by the way) that can help better “diagnose” the issue in a class, before hiring a tutor.  Then, a student may benefit greater in the long term, as learner and future professional contributing to the productivity of the global economy.

Photo Credit: Elmhurst College Learning Center

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