Question is simple:

Why are we not teaching university students how to learn/study ?


I've seen many university students who does not know how to study something, or learn something by themselves or by taking classes. I consider myself as someone who knows the basics about how to teach something to myself; I've various self-study experiences.However, all my experiences about topics that are well-localised, such as linear algebra, or analysis etc. However, for example, when I want to learn Analytical Mechanics with all of its mathematical backgrounds (starting from smooth manifolds), I get lost; I need to do both mathematics and physics at the same time in a rigorous sense, and the task has many faces, so regardless of how experiences I'm on self-studying, I don't know how to teach myself this particular subject.

Considering the fact that some student even cannot how to learn something even at the end of their second year in university, naturally this questions comes to mind.

  • 2
    I would argue that in most courses the primary learning goal is teaching students how to learn and study.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 22, 2019 at 13:58
  • 1
    @BryanKrause My whole university education experience claims the opposite.
    – Our
    May 22, 2019 at 14:14
  • 2
    University is "higher education". I suspect most universities expect that you have learned the basics about learning and self study during school, at least during the final years of high school or your local equivalent.
    – skymningen
    May 22, 2019 at 15:40
  • 3
    @skymningen According to my own observations, that assumptions is hardly valid in reality.
    – Our
    May 22, 2019 at 15:48
  • 3
    I think you've gotten some good answers to the question "Why are we not teaching university students how to learn/study?" but I think your actual question is just a complaint about your own experience with learning one specific topic.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 22, 2019 at 17:58

3 Answers 3


Why are we not teaching university students how to learn/study ?

Historically, professor profess rather than teach and it was not considered part of the university's job. For example, this PhD comic makes fun of that. Thus, the onus in the student to learn rather than the professor or instructor to ensure learning. This includes both the college-level study skills and the ability to teach themselves new materials beyond their coursework.

Pragmatically, many universities (at least in the United States) recognize new students (e.g,. freshman) do not have these skills and do teach them. For example, my undergraduate school offers courses such as Wildlife 100: Wildlife Profession and Preparation that:

Provide a background on careers in the wildlife field and an overview of skill development necessary to work in the field. Exposure to opportunities in research, internships, and extracurricular, as well as guidance on creating an effective program of study.

Furthermore, many universities in the United States offer tutoring or learning centers to help students develop study skills for their current courses (e.g., Texas Tech, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Yale).

  • Well, all of them seems about how to study for a course effectively. Note that, that is not comment throughtout universities, as far as I know. Also, what about how learn a subject by yourself ?
    – Our
    May 22, 2019 at 14:24
  • 3
    +1. For the first paragraph, I would add that we really expect students to have already learned "how to learn" during high school, the same way we expect them to be able to write an essay and do basic math.
    – cag51
    May 22, 2019 at 14:25

We don't teach students to learn because we don't know how to and many of us would probably be really bad at it. The argument is that being a student at a research intensive university provides (1) opportunities outside the classroom that a student wouldn't have at a teaching focused college and (2) that the faculty expertise in their field offsets the lack of teaching skills.

Given many faculty at research intensive universities lack teaching skills and of those, a significant proportion don't care, asking them to teach material they don't know or care about is probably a bad idea. Now whether a university should employee someone to teach learning skills is another issue. Historically, the idea was that students entering university should have the fundamental reading, writing and study skills needed to be successful. While that may not be accurate, universities seem to take the approach that they should be able to learn those things on their own.

  • 3
    I'd go a bit further. There's an abundance of educational and neuroscience research about effective teaching and study techniques, but most faculty are either ignorant of it or don't try to incorporate it into their teaching. May 22, 2019 at 16:32

This is a complex issue with many contributing factors.

Not every student needs to learn how to learn at the level you are teaching. They may later, of course, and some students do well for a long time and then hit a wall when things get hard. Some struggling students go farther than some early superstars because they learn how to work at it and the superstars found it too easy and don't understand why they are now having problems.

Many faculty members, I think at the beginning of a career especially, don't realize that their students are not like themselves. They get doctorates because they can learn relatively easily in the environment in which they were taught - usually lecture and exam in many places. But their own students may not do well it that same environment (what ever it is) and so don't have any easy tools for teaching those students.

Furthermore every student is different in how they learn. And many students don't know when they have learned something and so make unfortunate assumptions. Some students read something and think they have learned it, when they have not. They have only a short term memory retention of what they read, not a true understanding.

Generally speaking we learn through reinforcement and feedback. Learning requires that we re-connect synapses in the brain, physically changing its structure. See The Art of Changing the Brain by James E Zull for a run-down on the science behind it.

What to do

I think that every faculty member has a responsibility to teach their students to learn as necessary. This means being always aware of what is happening in their course, getting sufficient feedback on student learning and making sufficient course adjustments so that anyone with the desire to learn can do so.

Sometimes the most effective way to teach a subject, say computer science, is to interrupt the course and spend some time teaching the students how to learn CS. If you can make them more effective learners then everything else will be much easier.

For example, students may not know the value of taking notes, nor of summarizing their own notes. They may not know the value of always carrying something from which they can study (book, notes, index cards, ...). It isn't hard or especially time consuming to teach people the value of such things. I ended class periods with a call for the (say) three most important ideas of the current lecture. I sometimes asked students for the most important idea of the previous lecture. It takes a couple of minutes to do this and sets the stage.

So, I think that the presumption made by the OP that this doesn't happen isn't necessarily true. But the need for it isn't universally recognized, when IMO it should be.

In fact, you can teach people to learn your subject if you just require them to do tasks that give the necessary reinforcement and you also give them the required feedback. Don't assume that they have learned anything because you have lectured on it. Give them some sort of exercise or project that will induce the necessary changes in the brain. Then give them some feedback on how they did. Even better if you can let them re-do assignments to correct misconceptions and give better and more positive reinforcement. This can be done instead of any formal teaching them how to learn and can be just as effective. Maybe more effective, actually, as it is more organic.

In particular, active learning methodologies results in learning as it requires the active participation (reinforcement) of the student. The student doesn't need to "learn" how to learn the subject matter. The course activities themselves provide for the required learning changes to the brain.

I'll note that the Pedagogical Patterns project has spent quite a lot of effort on the issue of teaching technical subjects (especially CS) to people who have different learning modalities. So, it isn't that the issue has been ignored.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .