As a teacher, have you ever experienced a situation in which a student comes to see you in your office to ask you why despite having worked hard he or she obtained a disappointing exams result of ____ (insert the corresponding mark here) ? I always feel bad, as if my teaching had failed somehow. As a result I think hard about what to say, do or teach in order to avoid having students in such distress in the future. However, what are the right words to say? Is there a miracle solution?

What research tells us about winning learning strategies is that students’ attitudes, behaviours or learning routines affect directly the effectiveness of learning. However, it’s impossible to define precisely best practice, indeed the best way to learn depends on several factors, included context, students’ learning profiles and students’ personal learning environment.

Nevertheless, teachers should introduce and suggest winning learning strategies to students. Here are the top 4 winning strategies I present to my students.

1) Students should plan a daily schedule and give themselves regular breaks. Athletes aren’t expected to be physically performant 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. We should expect the same for brain work and mental focus. The ideal rhythm between work and breaks to foster deep learning should be close to the following pattern: 15 minutes break every 2 hours, one hour lunch break and a good night of sleep. Burnout is a real threat and it’s essential for students to protect themselves from stress more particularly during exams preparation.

2) Students must find ways to connect new knowledge with prior knowledge in order to foster deep learning. It’s faculty’s duty to help them to do so. I’m always scared by faculty who teach stand and deliver lectures without interactivity and who don’t encourage students to put new knowledge in perspective with real life situations. I always try to do so as I’m deeply aware that this is best way to foster deep and long learning. Encouraging students in finding real life examples to illustrate new concepts helps them to make essential connections. Thus I organize my teaching allowing time for peer discussions, and reflexive pauses in order to address misconceptions and integrate new knowledge meaningfully.

3) Students who take a few minutes to review notes prior to the following course are more successful. Reviewing notes regularly gives an opportunity to contextualize new knowledge and avoid losing time to focus at the beginning of the following class meeting. Moreover, students who review their notes on a regular basis prior to the next course often come back to school with strategic questions which address misconceptions. At the moment of making notes, students usually have the feeling they understand what they write. However, when the same students review their notes on new material, unexpected questions occur. It’s not rare to observe that what seemed clear at the time becomes difficult to explain.

4) I readily add a fourth piece of advice: the art of making lists! When preparing exams, the task may seem impossible to achieve because of too many topics, too much material! ‘From where should I start?’ is a common question among students. My advice is to make a list and take one thing at a time, slowly but surely, and put a tick in the corresponding line once it’s done. Dividing material into sequences with realistic and attainable objectives allow students to achieve more work and study more effectively. It’s the backwash strategy, beginning from the learning outcomes to the first steps of study. Making lists brings another positive element: lowering the feeling of guilt and reinforcing self-esteem.

It’s essential to help students understand what works best for them. As an educational developer, I always encourage faculty to do so at the beginning of every academic year. Believe me, it’s worth spending some time on talking about students’ learning styles!

McKeachie, W. J., Svinicki, M. D., & Hofer, B. K. (2006). McKeachie’s teaching tips : strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (12th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.