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What do brilliant students do to succeed in their studies? Would learning about their learning strategies help other students develop their own? It is around these questions that Wendy McMillan conducted a recent study at a South African university. She has worked with 7 outstanding students in dentistry studies. It was a three-part first two-hour interview in which the students reported on their usual study strategies, followed by an observation of the students realizing a realistic learning task and finally a second interview in the form of debriefing the task performed.

To analyze for study help, she used the framework of self-regulated learning to highlight students’ cognitive and metacognitive strategies as well as how they manage their motivation in their studies. In most studies, researchers have already demonstrated that the best predictor of success in higher education is the quality of cognitive learning strategies and the fact that these strategies are made explicit ( thanks to metacognition among others). In his study, McMillan highlights other interesting factors.

  • Cognitive Strategies

Three strategies are particularly valuable here for brilliantly successful students: identifying and repeating the main ideas of a course; the ability to summarize and paraphrase these main ideas; and organizing these ideas into a personal and coherent table of contents. It is therefore a matter of appropriating the subject matter of a course by being able to explain it with its words in a fluid and articulated way.

  • Metacognitive strategies

Metacognition is often referred to as the ability to be aware of one’s learning strategies. The McMillan study allows us to dissect metacognition into a series of useful micro-skills, both when we are in the classroom and when we are at the library studying: preparing our study plan, re-reading notes, listening in the classroom and taking synthetic notes, writing questions to the teacher or searching the literature for misunderstandings, applying a working procedure case of misunderstanding (reading the course, searching for additional references, re-reading of notes, etc.), etc.

  • Motivation strategies

The students interviewed gave a lot of value to the academic tasks they were asked for. They also developed a strong sense of competence in these tasks, in particular by personally challenging themselves to carry out such and such a particularly difficult task. To accomplish these tasks, they also persisted in their efforts and sought alternative solutions to solve learning problems. Another important point about motivation is that students do not view evaluations as moments of sanction but rather as stages in their learning process, which allows them to mitigate the usual stress associated with ‘Evaluation.

In the discussion of his research, McMillan emphasizes the importance for teachers to make explicit in their course the main ideas and the table of contents. This helps students structure their notes and develop effective learning strategies. It also suggests that students should be spoken more often in class (with the teacher to ask questions), but also outside the classroom (between students to practice appropriating course material and to exchange their study strategies). McMillan also explains that in a university course, it is not very difficult to help students develop cognitive and metacognitive learning strategies. On the other hand, it is not obvious to act directly on the motivation. However, in developing a variety of tasks,

Personally, the study presented here encourages me to continue to discuss with the teachers the explanation of the course of their course in the eyes of the students: table of contents but also expectations with regard to examinations or participation in class. This gives clues to students about what they should be able to achieve throughout the course. To this idea, some teachers reply that they have then the feeling of making their course too “school”. They expect students to be able to develop their strategies independently. From my point of view of educational adviser, it is to forget that the student population has changed a lot in the last 20 or 30 years and that more than before; the students need some guidance in their learning. This does not make the courses more “academic”. It is simply a matter of developing the quality of courses and programs to adapt them to new audiences.

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