Saundra McGuire: Strategies to Teach Students How to Learn

As a chemistry professor and leading expert in learning strategies, Dr. Saundra McGuire has spent her career working to empower students to take control of their own learning. This week, Dr. McGuire will share her insights and lessons learned with educators who are attending the 23rd National HBCU Faculty Development Conference in New Orleans. In the days leading up to her presentation, Dr. McGuire spoke to ACUE about who inspired her research and scholarship interests, strategies that empower student learning, and her hopes for the future of student success in higher education.

Dr. McGuire is also a featured expert in ACUE’s Course in Effective Teaching Practices for Engaging Underprepared Students.

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On what changed the trajectory of her research and scholarship.

Before I got to LSU, I really didn’t understand that there were strategies for students to use to increase the quality of their learning. I knew how to teach chemistry. I’d won teaching awards, and I was a very successful faculty member. But I didn’t know that you could give students very simple information and strategies that would empower them to take control of their own learning.

That changed within my first month at LSU when I saw the interaction that Sarah Baird, an outstanding learning strategist, had with one of her students. I saw her explaining straightforward changes to study habits that could transform the student’s entire approach to learning. That’s when I started reading everything I could get my hands on in order to find out exactly how any teacher could do this. I knew that if I understood that information, it would allow me to acquire the language and the deeper knowledge to empower my students to take control of their own learning.

On applying her research to help students.

The first student I helped become his own tutor was an LSU football player who was failing his math class. He came to talk with me and said that he was struggling to understand his tutor.

I said, “You don’t need a tutor. You can be your own tutor.” He replied, “Be my own tutor?” I asked him if he had tried to learn the information and then explain it to the tutor during their sessions. I also showed him how to use additional learning strategies, which I’ve recently compiled into a book, Teach Students How to Learn. The football player did everything I suggested, and he made an A on his next test.

It was that kind of thing that I never would have been able to do had I not seen Sarah Baird’s interaction with students. That sent me on the path to learn this information, which I’ve been teaching to students for the past 15 years or so.

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On the teachers and mentors who inspired her own success.

There are a number of them, and I’m actually working on something that’s been on my bucket list for 20 years. It’s a banquet to honor the faculty members who were in the chemistry department at Southern University when I was an undergrad there from 1966 to 1970. It was a department that was unparalleled. Dr. Vandon White had compiled 17 African American PhDs in one department, and they were excellent mentors for us.

One of them was Dr. Jack Jefferson, who was an analytical chemistry professor. He was an outstanding teacher, and he also very much believed in us. It’s so important for faculty to express confidence in their students’ ability to learn and achieve. The research shows that the most important determinant of the amount of effort students put into a task is the confidence they have that they can be successful. And there are so many students—especially in STEM disciplines—who don’t feel like they can accomplish the work. But if faculty members tell them “I believe in your ability to do this. You can learn the material,” then the student can really hook into that confidence and do what is necessary to succeed.

On how instructors can get started in teaching students how to learn.

I would recommend that they look at the 50-minute presentation that I do for students. In my book, there are also presentation templates you can use for your specific class or for individual students.

To summarize, first, help your students identify the differences between what they have been doing and what they need to do to excel in the course.

I start with two questions. First, I ask them to explain the difference between studying and learning. Usually, students will say that studying is about memorizing information and learning is about being able to explain something and apply it in other ways.

Second, I ask “Would you work harder if you had to make an A on a test or if you had to teach the information to a group of your classmates who are preparing for the upcoming test?” They always say they’d work harder if they had to teach the material. When I ask them if, up to this point, they’ve been working to make an A or to teach the material, they say they’ve been studying to make an A.

And so we begin talking about learning strategies that will help them prepare to teach the material. That’s when the brain becomes aware of things they thought they understood but really didn’t.

On one change you would like to see in higher education that could make a big difference in student success.

The change that I would love to see is an institutional attitude that every admitted student can and will succeed with the learning tools they need and that institutions will provide them with those tools. Many institutions say they do this, but there are still a lot of majors with a very limited number of spots. They bring in more first-year students interested in that major than they have spots for because, they say, “Well, we know that not everybody is going to survive freshman year.” I would really love to see that change.

I do understand the attitude that there are certain students who aren’t smart enough to be successful. But that’s just not true, and I really wish that we could infuse every institution with the attitude that all of our students can be successful.

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