Learning to learn: A direct classroom intervention.
Abstract: Study skill packages are common in schools, reflecting an increasing
awareness that students require more than instruction in subject content
to be successful. For most students these packages are unsuccessful, partly
because the students do not have sufficient understanding of the learning
process to make proper use of the new skills. This paper reports on a
study in which students in year 10 in a Victorian Secondary College participated
in a semester length program designed to improve their awareness of issues
related to good learning in schools. During one 50 minute period a week
they were introduced to a range of issues to do with quality learning
commonly taught to Diploma of Education students at Monash University,
and exposed to a number of learning and organisation strategies found
to be valuable in previous research of this type. By the end of the 14
week program there was a substantial change in the level of awareness
of the students. Learning strategies introduced had been accepted and
used with considerable skill and flexibility. Many students showed an
increase in motivation and purposefulness as a direct result. While the
value of such training is clear, style of delivery remains problematic,
and there are still issues relating to class social structures that inhibit
the development of good learning skills.
Students in secondary education are (at least in Victoria) being asked
to cope with a system that has increased dramatically the expectations on
students' ability to multi-task projects, organise information presented
in many different modes, and maintain control of a complex assessment regime.
With less and less class time being available for discussion and interaction
between students, and between student and teacher, students are expected
to learn more course content in their own time - without guidance. These
expectations have taxed the skills students have developed during their
earlier school experience, and both staff and students have perceived a
need for improved independent learning skills. As a consequence there has
been a growing trend towards training in learning skills as an adjunct to
normal lessons - normally referred to as "study-skills".
While anecdotal evidence suggests that most secondary schools conduct some
sort of study skills program with their students (usually when approaching
or entering their final year), there is little evidence of systematic research
into the form and effectiveness of the programmes. The literature that does
nominate itself as concerned with "study-skills" has a wide range
of definitions as to what this actually is. In the ERIC database, between
1992 and June 1995 there are 540 items with "study-skills" in
their descriptor. Not one is an evaluation of a secondary programme in "study-skills"
for normal students. Most have included the descriptor because there is
some reference to simple strategies for concentration or note taking integrated
into work with a different focus. One title "How to study - efficiently!"
by Boris Blai has, as its most significant habits: "selecting ideal
study time; adjusting surroundings; length of time for each study sessions;
the way to go about reading...." That such trivialisation should be
the extent of the published advice does not bode well for the vast array
of unpublished efforts.
From informal discussions with teachers, and consensus amongst those who
have experienced a variety of schools, it appears that these "study-skills"
sessions are (a) short in duration - typically a half day seminar or a short
sequence of one hour sessions, (b) focussed on specific strategies that
are identified as "good" but justified mainly by "common
sense" or good learning folklore, (c) taken by staff members with little
specialist understanding of learning other than standard teaching training,
and (d) of little long term effect. Some students leave the sessions inspired,
but within a few days have forgotten all the issues, or at least failed
to implement them.
It is not hard to find reasons for such outcomes. The programs impose goals
on the students, rather than responding to the needs of the students themselves
(except in the most general sense). The strategies being taught are selected
by the teachers, not the students, and so are often poorly matched to student
goals. Helping the students to set appropriate goals for learning is vital.
Students strategies are affected by the goals they have (Newman & Schwager,
1995; Zimmerman, 1989), and motivation is positively influenced by goal
directed behaviour (Ames & Ames, 1989).
Motivation is also related to issues of self-efficacy and control. Subjective
beliefs about one's competence or level of skill are central to motivation
(Ames & Ames, 1989). If students do not consider themselves to be sufficiently
skilled in learning to be able to take some degree of control of the process,
then the motivation to engage in learning behaviours is lowered (Weiner,
1990; Patrick, Skinner & Connell, 1993; Schommer, 1990). Having an internal
locus of control is linked with positive outcomes in most measures of school
performance (Findley & Cooper, 1983). Knowing how to learn is as much
a curriculum matter as knowing how to do mathematics, and a greater understanding
of the subject matter improves motivation (Kloosterman & Stage, 1993).
Knowledge about good learning is not widespread. Common conceptions of
learning are related to remembering and recall of facts for test. A survey
of West Australians students showed an alarmingly surface interpretation
of learning, with "Increasing knowledge" being used by 50% of
students, and "Memorising and reproducing" being used by a staggering
60% of students when asked to describe learning situations. Not surprisingly
these students regarded learning as a school based activity, not a life
skill (Purdie, 1995). When students see learning in such simple terms, the
teaching of advanced cognitive strategies to improve understanding and quality
of learning can be ineffective, as the strategies do not appear to contribute
to the goals of the students, and so the strategies are not taken up, or
are used in unintended ways (Ashman & Conway, 1993; Munro, 1993; Ramsden,
Beswick, & Bowden, 1987).
For "study-skills" teaching to be more successful requires a
change in intention. Teaching the skills as a range of distinct skills or
strategies, as a "tool box" for students to select from, is to
only address one half of the problem. Procedural knowledge about how to
use strategies needs to be supplemented by conditional knowledge about how
and why to use them (Zimmerman, 1989; Symons et al., 1989). The focus has
to shift to changing the student's role - as perceived by the student: a
role which casts the students as more active and responsible in making decisions
about learning strategies and outcomes. Students will not accept and participate
fully in more active learning unless they support the change in role (Corbett
& Wilson, 1995). Without the cognitive consent of students to the new
approach, changes in teaching will not result in significant changes in
learning. This sort of change does not occur quickly or easily. Understandings
have to be gradually restructured with a consistency of approach over a
long period (Duffy & Roehler, 1989):
p.139-140 "Learners, particularly unmotivated learners, need both
time to successively restructure their instructional experience and a rich
context in which to build a meaningful conceptual mosaic for why strategies
are useful. Unfortunately teachers tend to expect immediate evidence of
learning and tend to put their effort into direct instruction of strategy
lessons rather than also expending energy on supportive activities that
demonstrate why strategies are worth learning."
This broader instruction to support the new strategies must be explicit,
not just modelled or alluded to by the teacher (Symons et al., 1989). Mainly
implicit teaching of good learning, such as the Project for Enhancing Effective
Learning (PEEL) (Baird & Mitchell, 1986; Baird & Northfield, 1992)
has had success, but mainly because of the extended nature of the interaction.
The initial reaction of the students was one of confusion and resistance
This paper reports on a project set up to explore the outcomes and difficulties
in teaching year 10 students explicitly about learning in a classroom context
over an extended period.
Building Independent Learning Skills (BILS).
The Building Independent Learning Skills program was conducted at a Victorian
Secondary College, and involved the entire year 10 population. Commencing
in July 1994 the project ran for 12 months, and engaged the students in
one 50 minute period per week. The period was a replacement for a Mathematics
period, but the program was not specifically linked to any academic subject.
There were two cohorts of students of approximately 120 students, each spending
one semester engaged in the BILS program. In the 1994 group there were 5
class groups involved, while in 1995 there were slightly fewer students
and only 4 class groups at year 10.
BILS was based on research conducted for my PhD, in which 8 year 11 students
engaged in a two year extended program of instruction and reflection about
the purpose of school teaching situations, and the meaning of good learning
(Macdonald, 1994). In this research a number of issues were found to be
critical to the ability of the students to take control of their learning,
make metacognitive decisions about strategy use, and maintain higher levels
of motivation. The two most important were the understanding the students
had of the learning as a process, and the understanding they had of the
purpose and goals of school. Also of significance was the degree of organisational
skills they possessed. Students who developed their understandings in line
with modern educational models more readily accepted and used new learning
strategies, and leapt ahead in performance, motivation and enjoyment of
learning. This was consistent with the position outlined earlier, which
suggested that students needed background understanding to make the most
of any new strategy instruction.
In the BILS program there were substantial differences in structure to
the previous research - differences that were to prove important. Instead
of a small group of volunteers the program ran in class groups of 25-30.
While all were volunteers, the degree of commitment to learning about their
learning and improving educational performance varied greatly. The classes
were also complete social structures, with well established dynamics - an
issue that was to assume great importance. Each group of students had only
one semester of exposure to the program which, with interruptions, meant
around 14 weeks of contact time.
Diagram 1 is a concept map of the key ideas covered in the program. This
map is built from the text used as the student reference: "Taking Control
of Learning" (Macdonald, 1993), a handbook for students generated from
the PhD project previously described. The students were each offered a free
copy of the text towards the end of the program if they were interested
in taking the ideas a bit further. While there are many jargon terms on
the map, the central concepts are Purpose and Control.
For students to feel a sense of purpose they needed long term goals in
terms of jobs, further education, or particular skills. These could then
be related to the structures of schooling. Many year 10 students had no
understanding of the VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education) framework,
and how the subjects were structured, yet this was vital to making sense
of the activities teachers undertook in class, and the outcomes they expected.
Purpose also required an understanding of what it means to learn, so that
the students could make an informed choice about their own thinking and
actions, as well as assist in making sense of teacher's activities.
To take more control over their learning the students needed to have a
range of learning strategies to choose from in order to meet the purposeful
goals they had. Some of these strategies are taught in current school based
"study-skills" programs, but without the context of a learning
framework. Organisational strategies are equally important. Understanding
some of the issues that can influence motivation provides another degree
of control. School students are usually fascinated by the opportunity to
understand their own psychology, and particularly interested when it allows
them to take some control in an environment that usually offers them little,
and to make changes that improve their academic performance. Implicit in
all these areas is the need to self-monitor and reflect, something that
was encouraged in the sessions through modelling and questioning.
The range of issues was ambitious, but previous experience had indicated
that students of similar age are capable of much greater intellectual management
than generally credited (Macdonald, 1994), and an integrated understanding
was required if the conditions for student control, previously laid out,
were to be met.
The year 10 students from 1994 had the opportunity to meet with us during
1995, though no specific period was allocated in the timetable. The year
11 students were able to meet with us to discuss any issues they had, which
tended to be applications of previously taught strategies. The number who
made use of the time available varied over the semester, peaking at assessment
Establishing a benchmark of student knowledge and attitudes was the first
priority, and the results were disturbing. Using questionnaires, interviews
and class activities to collect data, a picture of the students' understanding
of school and learning developed. Reported previously (Macdonald & Walsh,
1994), the students were mainly preoccupied with work completion, and had
little concept of quality work, and how it was constructed or judged. Motivation
was low, as their understanding of the teaching and learning interaction
was one of total dependence on the teacher - whose role they could not explain.
Not only did they not understand the current situation, but they were unable
to offer any real alternative for improvement. Despite 11 years of experience
their ignorance of the purpose and process of education was profound.
Early sessions of BILS were information seeking, and were intended to have
the students reflect about important issues, such as what it meant to be
a good student, and what good teachers and bad teachers did. As often as
possible these were extended into discussion sessions about the issues that
were raised, or when there were variations in the responses.
After a several weeks of baselining, the sessions became information providing.
Fundamental issues about the way teaching is intended to link ideas together
into a coherent course, and that each lesson should have a thematic topic
that should always be sought were constantly reinforced. The intention was
to explore the
areas the students already had some familiarity with - their classroom environment,
but reinterpreting it in terms of the purposes and processes underpinning
it. Within this was a constant undercurrent about the way individual students
had to made decisions about all aspects of learning, and that learning was
something done by students, rather than done to them by teachers.
The students had firmly established views about learning, but they were
very simple. Challenging the students to explain how learning occurred,
and what they saw to be the purpose of school activities was one of the
most important parts of the early stages of the program. For there to be
any desire to change in attitude some cognitive dissonance had to be created
- and this was very difficult. At the start very few students felt any degree
of concern about the way they learned at school, or about the quality of
their learning, and so were not particularly interested in pursuing any
change. They had grown up in an apparently consistent system that reinforced
their perception of school and learning, and there was some scepticism about
the idea that learning could be worth learning about. For a proportion of
the class this early attitude never changed, though the realisation that
occurred for others was obvious and powerful.
Activities used in the sessions were intended to engage and entertain as
well as educate. Motivation to be involved was delicate to maintain, as
there was no compulsion to the sessions, no form of assessment to act as
an external motivator, and (at least initially) a degree of scepticism in
the school staff to reinforce the students' own. As an outsider to the school
my assistants and I were not considered "teachers" and did not
strictly have the authority to use the school discipline structures, though
there was always a regular school teacher in the room to provide back up.
Combined with the allocation of afternoon sessions on Thursdays and Fridays,
the situation was not conducive to active engagement, and so activities
had to challenge and contest the students, to force them to argue the issues,
or had to draw the students in through fascination in something unexpected
Students at all ages have a great interest in the way they think and perceive,
and they love to be deceived by their own misperceptions. Some cognitive
dissonance about the nature of knowledge and its acquisition was established
through some fairly well known examples of ambiguous pictures and texts,
and with some sensory illusions. The widely varying understandings generated
much debate about "rightness" and the learning process, and extended
into discussion about other school subject matter, and the variety of possible
interpretations of meaning. There was a slow realisation that learning was
more complex than many had thought possible.
With some theoretical frameworks outlined, some terminology defined, and
some doubt cast about the simplicity of learning as a process, it was possible
to move into some more directly applicable strategy instruction. Where possible
sessions were coordinated with assessment tasks the students had been set
in their school subjects. For example, a session on analysing a task, and
looking for the important links with the subject themes was run at the time
the students received the major maths assignment for the semester. The students
were able to use the real task as a context to work through the strategies
Interspersed with the sessions on direct strategies, such as concept mapping,
or the use of task oriented timetable, were other sessions on theoretical
aspects affecting learning. Motivation and attribution theory generated
much discussion, and brought many links with other aspects of the students
lives, as did the sessions on development of habits through rewards and
Each session started with a specific topic, but developed according to
the reactions and interests of the students. In the 1995 semester, with
the benefit of the experience from the previous year, we were able to be
far more flexible in the way we dealt with student's responses. For most
class sets the sessions were a highlight of the week, and eagerly anticipated.
Information about the students' response to the program was collected by
In the first semester of the program (in 1994) the students were all given
a questionnaire (see Appendix A) asking about their perceptions of school
and learning, in order to give a baseline of understanding to work from.
The summary of this data has been reported previously (Macdonald & Walsh,
1994). This mode of data collection was abandoned when it became apparent
that individual interviews were a far richer source of information which
provided an opportunity to clarify meaning, and meant a better use of the
available time and money resources of the project.
In the first semester of the program students were selected for interview
on the basis of their questionnaire responses. In each class set, one student
who had given a comprehensive response, one who had given negligible response,
and one selected at random were interviewed, and asked to elaborate on their
questionnaire responses. This gave 15 students. The combined questionnaire
and interviews were compiled to give an overview of what year 10 students
thought about school and learning (Macdonald & Walsh, 1994).
At the end of the first semester the same students were interviewed again,
and asked about their attitudes to school, learning and the program (see
Appendix B for interview protocol). These provided a very rich source of
data, though the individual responses required knowledge of the student,
built up over the semester through class interactions, to interpret properly
(Macdonald & Gunn, 1995).
In the second semester of the project (semester one, 1995) greater emphasis
was placed on interview, and 26 of the year 10 students were interviewed
at the beginning and the end of the semester program, giving a wider spread
During 1995 the year 11 students, who had been participants in the 1994
program as year 10s were able to access the team for further assistance.
The five students who made contact most frequently were interviewed for
further insights into their development at the end of the semester. This
data is still being analysed and matched with interviews from the previous
3. Class observations.
Every session in both semesters of the program was audio-taped, and one
of the research assistants acted as observer. The research assistant then
wrote up a summary of each class, including the material covered, the important
contributions made by the students, and any significant specific issues
brought up. After each class there was usually a de-briefing session in
which the research assistant and I discussed individual students and the
effectiveness of the session.
Class interactions resulted in a good relationship being established with
the majority of the students. By the end of each semester we knew all the
students by name, and many students were comfortable enough with us to approach
us about specific issues after class sessions, or during breaks in the school
day. This personal knowledge of the students, and understanding of their
background and attitudes, helped in interpreting the comments made in sessions,
and interpreting the interviews. This knowledge was particularly important
as each student constructed an individual understanding from the content
of the BILS program, and adapted the suggested strategies accordingly.
4. Teacher comments.
An informal data source, but one of great interest, was the feedback we
received from the teachers. The class teachers who were involved in each
session were the homegroup teachers, and taught the students mathematics.
These staff were the greatest source of comment about individual students,
their attitudes towards the program, and their attitude towards school in
general. These teachers also provided some interesting responses to the
content of the sessions, usually very positive. In some cases we felt the
teachers were the greatest beneficiaries of the program!
Teachers who did not have direct involvement in the program occasionally
approach me with comments about the students, or the impact of the program.
These unsolicited comments were particularly powerful reinforcers of the
value of the program, as the teachers involved did not know exactly what
was being taught, but were sufficiently aware of change to feel it worth
making a contribution.
Interpretation of such diverse, generally unstructured data was particularly
difficult. Interviews were transcribed and matched against the research
questions (see Appendix C). Summaries of the interviews were then matched
to the questions, and any other themes that appeared to be present. The
major themes to come from the 1995 group have been processed, but there
remains a great deal of analysis to be done on the interviews with the students.
Being action research the research questions were modified during the project,
in response to the data that was being collected. In particular the issue
of social interaction, and the effect of peers on motivation and use of
learning strategies became more apparent and important as the project continued,
and as the final interviews in 1995 were conducted. The full implications
have not yet been resolved, though some early statements can be made.
The outcomes of this project can be considered from many perspectives:
1. The initial knowledge base of the students,
2. The changes in the students during the project,
3. The reactions of the staff at the school, and
4. The insights to be gained about attempting to run such training in schools.
1. The initial knowledge base of the students.
Students at this school, in year 10, were labouring under a very limited
concept of what school and learning were intended to achieve. With such
a degree of ignorance (see Macdonald & Walsh, 1994 for complete analysis)
it is not surprising that the students had difficulty in approaching their
work with purposefulness, motivation, and with any degree of metacognition.
The students had little idea about how schools and their courses operated,
what they were supposed to gain from the courses in the long term, how teachers'
strategies were intended to promote learning, what "learning"
as such was in terms of processes and outcomes, how students achieved learning
through the use of learning strategies and what strategies existed, and
how students may be able to assist their own learning through decisions
about learning style. They felt helpless, dependent on teachers, and frustrated.
Many had already given up on achieving much from their education, and were
waiting until they could leave. Few found school challenging and interesting.
Having a comprehensive measure of the students' current understanding and
attitude is vital in preparing any program to improve learning. Knowing
where to start, and what attitudes need to be overcome or reconstructed
is essential to the development process. This analysis has proved valuable
in a variety of future research work with school aged children.
2. The changes in the students during the project.
The most successful aspect of the project was the increase in awareness
of the students in several key areas (see Macdonald & Gunn, 1995 for
a full evaluation of the 1994 students):
Learning about learning requires a means of communication about learning,
a jargon that is both a medium for development of understanding of the area,
and an outcome of such understanding. Understanding Physics or Chemistry
requires students to develop a broad range of concepts that have specific
meaning and application. These are supported by an array of related ideas
and experiences carefully calculated by the teacher to link with and reinforce
the concept acquired. Understanding learning requires a similar construction
of concepts and experiences. Embedded in these are specific language terms
and ideas. During the project the students developed rapidly in their language
content and use. Their propositional knowledge had clearly increased dramatically.
Increased awareness of learning strategies.
One of the main purposes of the BILS program was to raise the students'
awareness of learning strategies. A number of strategies that had been of
great effect in previous research work (Macdonald, 1994) were introduced
to the students in the context of a model of learning (Macdonald, 1993).
The principal ones were:
Determine Topic and Task.
Concept mapping - for planning essays.
Concept mapping - for making sense of topics.
Tumbling TimeTable and Bite-sized-bits.
Monitor attention types in class.
Monitor learning style - deep or surface.
Ask confirming questions.
After the BILS program there was a much greater awareness of the learning
strategies available to the students, and when it may be useful to use them.
This is not a simple acquisition. Learning strategies are not handy little
techniques that can be taught as separate tools, they are based in the concept
of learning that the students have. One of the core intents of the BILS
program was to develop the understanding the students had of learning, and
the way in which it occurred. This involved changing belief structures carried
through from primary school days. The learning strategies suggested were
only of utility to the students if they fitted in with the understanding
they had of an effective way to achieve their learning goals. If the students
had retained a surface model of learning (that the original questionnaires
and interviews seemed to indicate they started with) then concept mapping,
reflection, and asking confirming questions would all be strategies that
would not be seen as useful. The awareness the students showed was thus
a defacto acceptance of their value in learning well, and hence a measure
of the students' understanding of the learning model being used.
The number of students who remembered the Topic and Task strategy, and
commented on its value, helps reinforce the staggering lack of purpose that
those students previously had in class. If this simple strategy could have
such an impact, what sort of learning was occurring previously? This reinforces
the conclusions previously drawn from the compilation of initial interviews
and questionnaires (Macdonald & Walsh, 1994): Students at this level
have little idea what they are supposed to get out of class, and less idea
how to do so
(Macdonald & Gunn, 1995).
Increased self awareness of learning.
The students in this study became far more aware of their own learning,
and were able to make frank and realistic analyses of themselves. The number
of students who regarded themselves as "good learners" dropped
by the end of the program - though their real standard had improved, and
they were able to explain clearly why they felt they were lacking, using
appropriate language and concepts. This did not always mean that they were
prepared to do anything constructive about this perceived inadequacy, for
some it was not sufficiently important to warrant extra effort, as they
saw that they would achieve their goals as they were.
Improved motivation and feelings of control.
While these terms are difficult to define in ways that allow conclusive
measurement, the students changed in the way they described "being
in control" during the course of the project, from an external to an
internal locus. Instead of talking about what was done in the class, when
in should be done, and who made the rules, at the end of the program the
students were more inclined to talk about understanding subject content,
and knowing what was going on in class (determining Topic and Task). Task
completion had given way to understanding as the main aspect of being in
Motivation appeared to be linked to a number of factors (see Macdonald
& Gunn, 1995), but many indicators showed an increased motivation in
the students who had undergone the full range of changes described above.
3. The reactions of the staff at the school.
Staff at the school were both concerned about the students' ability to
learn independently, and anxious for there to be some positive change, but
at the same time were fundamentally sceptical that any program would have
much effect. This is a realistic attitude based on the failure of past programs
to achieve any real effect, both at this school, and at others they had
taught at in the past. For most secondary teachers the idea of university
academics coming in to run theoretical programs in year 10 classes was a
likely scenario for chaos. Expectations were not high.
In both semesters the period allotted to the BILS program was taken from
the mathematics timetabled classes, and the maths teachers were present
during every session. It was an act of some courage for the teachers to
volunteer this time in mid 1994 - initially for a 4 week "probation",
as there was considerable resultant pressure placed on the teaching of the
subject in the remaining classes.
As the program developed the teachers became more involved in the sessions,
and many times stayed on to discuss the issues after the students had left.
For some it was the first time they had been exposed to these ideas and
strategies, and for others it was a refreshing reminder. Pledges to incorporate
good learning strategies into future classes were common, and there was
strong support from the teachers for the more practical suggestions made
to the students. From the comments made by other teachers in the school
it was clear that at least some of the issues had been discussed in the
The acid test was in early 1995, when the second sequence of year 10s was
to take up the BILS program. A powerful affirmation of the value of the
program was the preparedness of the Maths staff to again donate a period
a week to its continuation.
Learning strategies suggested to the students, and the emphasis on seeking
purpose in every class and task resulted in teachers in other subjects coming
to me to discuss the improvements they had noticed in their students, improvements
that they considered were due to the BILS intervention. These teachers did
not have the same language to explain what they had noticed, but it was
clear that students were attempting to make more links, and apply the "topic
and task" strategy in their other classes.
4. The insights to be gained about attempting to run such training in
The BILS program as conducted was very successful at raising awareness
in the students about good learning and the purpose of school - but is was
not nearly as successful at changing students' behaviours. There are a number
of reasons for this, reasons that have implications for any future attempts
to develop a school based program.
1. Pitching at an appropriate level.
The analysis of the initial data from the questionnaires and interviews
took time, and so the first group was approached at a level that proved
too advanced. Students are starting from a very low level of understanding,
and even basic assumptions about knowledge need to be tested thoroughly
before being used as a basis for further training.
2. Finding appropriately skilled staff.
Teachers in schools are generally unfamiliar with the topics and issue
of BILS. It is not possible to provide a package that an ordinary teacher
could work through with the students, as so much of the effect of the BILS
program can be traced to the presenter's ability to engage the students
in discussion about the issues, and link and interpret the students' daily
experience with a model of good learning. This requires considerable understanding,
flexibility and confidence in the theoretical bases. Equally it is not possible
to have people who are not teachers, but who have a grounding in the theoretical
side of good learning take class size groups at this level. Managing year
10s on a Friday period 6 is not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced.
Teaching experience and theoretical soundness are difficult to find together.
When my research assistants attempted to run these sessions in 1994 this
became clear and obvious. Even the presence of the classroom teacher was
not going to allow this to continue. A teacher is required for class size
3. Beating the "I'll work next year".
Previous research with students in year 12 (Macdonald, 1990) resulted in
students asking "why didn't I know this last year? I needed it then!",
but when students were picked up in year 11 and carried through to year
12 (Macdonald, 1994) the same question was raised "why didn't I learn
this last year? I needed this at the start of the year!" The BILS project
was directed at year 10s, but while students again asked "why didn't
I know this last year?" many more were saying "this is all very
well, but I don't really need to work until next year." and they did
not put any effort into taking on any new learning strategies. The return
was not worth the effort, in their view.
There appears to be a perception with year 10 students that the hard work
begins at year 11 (the start of VCE), and that there is no need for better
learning strategies at year 10. A common attitude was that they are "saving
themselves" for a big work effort at year 11. This attitude must be
unintentionally reinforced by the teachers at this level providing work
requirements that do not expose the weaknesses of the students in a way
that causes them to re-evaluate their skills and attitudes. Without some
perception of need the students are not going to make conscious effort to
4. Equity versus quality.
Many of the difficulties mentioned in taking class size groups stemmed
from a small group of students in the class who had little interest in being
involved. While prepared to volunteer to participate (the alternative was
to continue ordinary classes) some students already saw school as something
to be endured, rather than an opportunity. These students did not have the
learning strategies to succeed in normal schooling, and had fallen too far
behind in understanding to realistically catch up without extensive remedial
work (something they would probably not tolerate). Improving their learning
was not on their agenda, and so their participation was either non-existent
or negative (disruptive).
One solution to this problem is to only offer the program to those with
some commitment. But how is this determined while maintaining equity and
fairness? To exclude the weakest students is to exclude those with the greatest
need (though not the greatest interest), and create an even greater range
of students in the classes. Of course to not provide such a program to those
who could benefit from it is equally discriminatory. Even those who do not
show interest initially may become involved when they start to discover
new ways of looking at their learning. For many, some information is necessary
before interest can take root. To include only those students with an immediate
interest may well exclude those who will eventually benefit the most.
The previous, very successful research was conducted in smaller sized groups,
where it was possible to get greater interaction, and more personal implementation
of the program. This allowed more effective application by the student.
Smaller group sizes would, however, result in the need for extra cost, as
the greater teacher student ratio would be more expensive to staff.
To offer the program as an extra service to students on a fee for service
basis would discriminate against those who could not afford to pay, creating
an equity issue for the school, and spreading the range of "haves"
5. Social structures.
The final interviews revealed a difficult dilemma being suffered by some
students. Students who were very positive about the BILS project, who were
excited by the idea of taking more control of what they did to learn, who
could explain clearly what they should do to improve their learning, who
could also explain why and how it would assist them, and expressed a strong
desire to improve their learning performance also said that they would not
be implementing any of the new strategies they knew would help them. The
reason they gave was that they did not want to attract unfavourable attention
from powerful, anti-achievement students in their class. They regarded it
as too dangerous to show obvious interest in being a better student by any
overt show of involvement in the program, and any obvious adoption of any
of the suggested strategies.
One class of students was essentially streamed and was composed of the
better maths students. This class was the most receptive, reactive, and
enthusiastic of all the classes. The degree of participation grew rapidly,
and by the end of the semester program the sessions were some of the most
vigorous, thoughtful and positive of my experience in any level of teaching.
The year 10 students were more aware of the real issue to do with quality
learning than a typical class of Graduate Diploma of Education students.
When quizzed about this level of engagement the students also nominated
that they did not have any negative people in the class, and that they would
not be intimidated by them anyway (but whether they would have reached this
level of confidence if some of the power figures had been in the class is
6. Class size and active involvement.
One of the most important problems about having large class sizes was the
difficulty in getting the students to engage in activities that reinforced
the theory presented. While small groups can be divided into active sets
of three to five, with each group monitored closely, a class of 30 creates
too many sets to effectively engage, and students are left too long without
interaction with the teacher, and lose interest and focus. Learning how
to use the many student learning strategies is not easy. Many of these strategies
require practice, encouragement, and regular detailed feedback for students
to gain sufficient confidence in their capacity to use them to be effectively
used when under pressure. Larger set sizes make it too difficult for the
students to have sufficient participation, and so more challenging tasks
are avoided. Class group discussion is also difficult to manage, and difficult
for more than just a few students to explore and resolve their questions.
More than any other subject area, learning to learn seems to demand small
groups to be effective in changing student understandings.
The BILS program had both successes and failures. It appears to have succeeded
where many other study skills style programs have failed, but still has
several important problems left to overcome.
" Students improved their awareness of good learning, and developed
the capacity to analyse their learning situations.
" Students said in interviews that they found the ideas put forward
extremely relevant and important. Many expressed the wish to develop some
of the skills and strategies suggested. Basic strategies were broadly accepted
and used, while some students took to the time to get extra assistance in
more advanced, specific strategies and became quite adept at their use.
These students were very positive about the value of these strategies.
" Students showed more understanding of the learning environment of
school, and expressed greater interest and motivation in their school work.
They appeared to be more in control of the work they were doing.
" Students extended the ideas to other classes suficient for the teachers
to make comment, showing that generalisation from the sessions was occuring.
" In at least one class the year 10 students were able to show a remarkable
capacity to analyse their learning situation, make insightful interpretations
about teachers' methods and student responses, and generate approaches to
learning entirely consistent with quite sophisticated models of learning.
Students are clearly capable of engaging these ideas at this level when
other negative factors are absent.
" Teachers involved in the program were very positive about the ideas
and strategies, and attempted to promote these in their classes. BILS was
philisophically acceptable to the staff, and received good support - essential
for any external program, as without staff backing the students would not
be able to implement the ideas suggested.
" Students did not have sufficient training in the strategies and
skills to use them effectively on their own. Although they saw them as desirable
and important they were not confident in their ability to use them. More
time is needed in smaller groups.
" Small groups are not economically feasible in schools, and large
class groups do not give sufficient opportunity for students to engage in
active, individual engagement with the material with sufficient support
to gain the confidence necessary.
" The social structures in the class room are very powerful in preventing
students taking risks with their learning. Students in all but one class
were sufficiently afraid of the anti-achievement element in their class
to not risk using learning strategies that they otherwise saw as valuable,
effective and accessible.
" Running sessions on learning, such as the BILS program requires both
teaching skills and a deep understanding of the issues related to good learning.
It would not seem be possible to provide a package for ordinary teachers
in schools to work through in a way that would achieve the aims of the program.
Developing the teachers to the level of skill required would be a long term
The BILS program has reinforced the value for students in understanding
their learning, and shown that it is possible to teach quite sophisticated
ideas and skills to mid-secondary students. Clearly understanding the learning
theory that underpins school teaching, and good learning strategies, is
an important element in having students assume more responsibility and control
over their learning. But, as the Kingsford Smith's flight from Europe to
Australia is a long way from modern reliable commercial air travel, the
BILS program is only an early step in the development of a program suitable
for introduction to the school curriculum. There remains much work to be
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Appendix A: Initial questionnaire.
Please answer the following questions as fully as possible. Your responses
will be confidential.
There is no right or wrong answer, there is only your understanding.
Your thoughts are extremely valuable, so please take the time to give the
best answer you can.
" Do you consider yourself a good student? In what ways?
" What do your parents think of you as a student?
" What do your friends think of you as a student?
" What do the teachers think of you as a student?
" How important to you are these people's opinion?
" What are your strengths and weaknesses as a student trying to achieve
your goals at school?
" What are you good at in your life - other than school?
" Do you find the work you are expected to do in class too easy or
(You may need to answer by subjects)
" How important is it to you to get good marks?
" How do you feel if you get a really good mark?
" How do you feel if you get a really bad mark?
" How much homework do you get? Is it too much or too little? Do you
cope with it?
" Do you ask many questions in class? What sort of things do you ask,
and how often?
" Do you pay attention in class? Describe how you pay attention.
" How interesting are classes? What makes them interesting?
" How do you go about doing an assignment that is going to take a lot
" When you go home in the evening and do you do your homework: where
do you do it, and how much effort do you put into it?
" How stressful is doing homework for you?
" Do you usually get your work done (at home and at school)?
" Do you feel that you need to change your work habits? In what ways?
" Do you think you are organised?
" Do other people think you are organised?
" Do you plan out your work? How do you do this?
" Do you enjoy coming to school? Why?
" Do you feel that you are in control of your school work?
" Do you find it hard to sit down to do your work?
" What do you do when you find you are struggling to keep up with your
" How stressful is school, and why?
" Do you feel satisfied with your working and learning at school at
" Will you be able to handle year 11 and 12 the way you are working
at the moment? Why?
" Are you prepared to be interviewed individually by one of the Monash
people? Yes. No.
" Are you prepared to be monitored individually as a "case study"
within the investigation?
Appendix B: Final interview protocol - 1994.
Follow up questions in italics are representative of the developing questions
asked by the interviewer (depending on responses.)
" How do you see year 11? What are your expectations?
" What do you think the load will be like?
" What do you think year 11 will be trying to teach you?
" How do you think you will manage year 11?
" Do you feel you have more than one option in going about doing your
" How do you see your learning now?
" Do you know why you are getting the marks you are?
" Has this changed during the semester?
" What do you remember about BILS?
" Do you think BILS could be useful for other people?
" When you get a good mark, what helps you get this mark?
" And when you get a bad mark?
" Do you consider yourself a deep or surface learner?
" Are there any particular areas where you are more one than the other?
" Do you think you should change in any way?
" Do you think in a deep way outside class?
Appendix C: Research questions
1. What understanding do year 10s have of school and learning, at the start
2. How does this understanding guide what they do?
3. How much does their understanding overlap with what they see as the school
and staff understanding?
4. What do year 10s want help in - What issues attract the most interest
5. What issues do they seem most ignorant about? (Do they know they don't
know. If they do, do they see it as important anyway).
6. What are the strategies that are best accepted, and most accessible.
7. What are the motivational issues before and after intervention:
- What motivates them?
- What style of motivation is a "best fit".
- Do they feel that they can effect change in performance by change in strategy.
- Do they have a range of strategies to choose from?
- Does this change through the programme?
8. What changes are there in feelings of control and why do they occur?
9. How reflective are year 10s after the program?
- What issues do they reflect on?
10. What strategies are seen as relevant by students and why?
11. What language do they use?
12. What changes are there in peer interactions to do with learning - self
13. Self reported attitudes towards learning.
14. How do "trained" year 10s see school and learning?
15. How confident are students about upcoming study - year 11, year 12,
16. How do students cope now? What strategies do they use and why?
17. What are students' concerns about school?
18. Development of understanding of organisation?
19. How do these issues integrate. What synergy is apparent? Do students
use many ideas together to explain something, or make decisions about strategy
Research questions - year 11.
1. What do year 11s want help in - issues.
2. What are the strategies that are best accepted.
3. What are the motivational issues before and after intervention.
4. How reflective are year 11s after the program
what language do they use?
5. What changes are there in peer interactions to do with learning - self
6. Self reported attitudes towards learning.
7. How do "trained" year 11s see school and learning (c/f last
8. How confident are students about upcoming study, second half year 11,
and year 12, and why?
9. How do students cope now? What strategies do they use and why?
10. What are students' concerns about school?
11. What strategies are seen as relevant by students and why?
12. Development of understanding of organisation.
13. What changes are there in feelings of control and why they occur.