When did you last reflect on your assumptions about teaching and learning? I have been teaching for over two decades, and when I did this, I uncovered some interesting insights. I assumed that my students, having completed high school, were well-equipped with effective study skills. On closer examination, I realised there was a gap between my expectations and the reality of my students’ study habits.
This led to a small Action Research project I worked on last year to support my first-semester accounting students to develop effective learning skills. After many years of teaching, I found this focused project energised and refreshed me professionally and had a meaningful impact on my students’ learning experiences.
Learning about the student brain
The UTS Transition principles underscore the importance of supporting students in building on past educational experiences to become independent, lifelong learners. I decided to take deliberate steps to assist my students in developing crucial learning skills and to explicitly scaffold the learning process.
Despite teaching for many years, I realised there is so much I don’t know about learning, having relied on my own experience and the way my subject was traditionally taught. I dived into learning neuroscience by reading Janet Zadina‘s Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain, which also outlines various strategies for both teachers and students. Reflecting on the demands of my subject which has lots of technical vocabulary and processes, weekly quizzes and an open-book final exam, I summarised the book’s strategies into 11 key points to share over the semester. I particularly focused on the importance of effective note-taking as a key strategy for success.
Learning about study skills
I devised short, impactful activities to share these learning skills, given that student time and attention is limited. I provided a concise summary on Canvas each week and a brief activity using the course content at the beginning of tutorials. When focusing on writing study notes, for instance, tutorials began with students comparing their notes and reflecting on how they can improve. Towards the end of the semester, we explored the impact of stress on learning and tried a short breathing exercise at the start of class called the physiological sigh.
To gauge the effectiveness of these adjustments I conducted surveys at the start and end of the semester. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with 91% of students noting an improvement in their learning skills and 89% expressing increased engagement and confidence. I found the brief, but deliberate focus on learning skills opened up interesting and meaningful conversations about learning that hadn’t happened in my past semesters.
Student comments echoed this sentiment:
Yes, I have improved because back in high school I did not maintain study notes. My study notes are very nicely structured now.
When I was doing quizzes it’s better to have my notes around.
I have also found that throughout the modules, Laura included some study hacks that I have found to be extremely effective such as reading aloud, writing notes so that I am able to visualize the information, pretending I am teaching a class so that I can reword the explanation of challenging concepts so that I am also able to understand as well as the audience.
I compared students’ overall subject marks with their regular creation of study notes based on my own observations in tutorials. The data overwhelmingly showed that students who brought study notes to class achieved higher final grades. I am going to share this data with students next semester.
Learning about ourselves
This small project had a big impact on both the students and me. The consistent focus throughout the semester opened up new conversations and gave students practical strategies that they could use immediately and didn’t take up much extra time in a busy semester. As an experienced teacher it gave me a fresh focus, which I found professionally energising as I was learning more and felt empowered to try out something new.
In sharing this experience, I’m hoping that you too might be inspired to reflect on your teaching and learning assumptions, or be intrigued to try out an idea you’ve had in the back of your mind for a while. I encourage you to make a plan, try it out, evaluate it and see how it goes. I’d love to hear about it if you do!
Read the full Action Research report from the project: Embedding learning skills and strategies in first-semester Accounting.
Australian Learning and Teaching Council. (2009). Articulating a transition pedagogy to scaffold and to enhance the first year student learning experience in Australian higher education.
Bjork, R.A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-Regulated Learning: Beliefs, Techniques, and Illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 417–444. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143823
Brookfield, S. (2017). Becoming a critically reflective teacher (Second edition.). Jossey-Bass.
Egea, K. (2022, October 19). 6 principles of first-year curriculum: Transition.
Huberman, A. (2021, April 7). Reduce anxiety and stress with the physiological sigh Huberman Lab [Video].
Nugent A., Lodge, J. M., Carroll, A., Bagraith, R., MacMahon, S., Matthews, K. E. & Sah, P. (2019). Higher Education Learning Framework: An evidence informed model for university learning. Brisbane: The University of Queensland.
Zadina, J. N. (2014). Multiple pathways to the student brain: energizing and enhancing instruction. WILEY.