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For most of us, traveling to a new destination involves typing an address into a GPS and then trusting it to tell us our every turn. That’s what I did the last time I went somewhere new, but when I arrived I couldn’t tell you how I had got there. Sure, I arrived at my destination just fine, but had I more actively engaged in planning my route, I might have been able to repeat my journey without assistance in the future. I also would have felt more confident about planning other future routes on my own, and maybe had a better sense of the landscape I had traversed and how my destination was connected to my point of departure.

I could go the distance with this metaphor, but you probably already know where I’m headed. The motivated, self-regulated, and engaged “expert” learner that I’m describing is what we want in our classrooms. We know they not only do better in our classes, they do better in their next classes because they learned how to learn

So, how do we go about reducing barriers that can get in the way of student metacognitive development, while at the same time setting up accessible and challenging learning environments? As a music history professor, often teaching large classes filled with non-majors meeting their multicultural requirement, I appealed to my students’ learning journey and fostered the skills of expert learners as a way to reach and make my class relevant to as many of my students as I could. Here are a few tips for setting up your own course to foster the development of expert learners.

Setting a destination

Support relevant goal-setting: Relevancy is key to student engagement because “students will never use knowledge they don’t care about, nor will they practice or apply skills they don’t find valuable.” While I would try to highlight how my course goals built towards transdisciplinary knowledge and skill sets, I found supporting students in setting their own goals to be a better strategy for fostering expert learners.

    • Have students create their own career skill or personal interest inventories and map course goals and activities to gaps.
    • Pairs or small group goal setting activities and models of SMART goals or goal setting worksheets can help students overcome feeling lost when trying to write initial goals.

Many routes

Communicate high expectations for all and recognize variability: When we communicate high expectations, we not only communicate expectations about what counts as “mastery” and “achievement” but also that we expect our students can and will master and achieve. However, just because you set high expectations doesn’t mean that everyone has to achieve those expectations in the exact same way. Learner variability is the norm, not the exception. Consider providing students choices in how they learn and demonstrate their mastery. In my experience, not all students will find equal relevance or value in a single set of activities. Individual choice and autonomy will encourage students to own their own learning, an important step towards becoming an expert learner.

    • You are more likely to see the multiple potential paths to achievement when you start with clear and specific learning outcomes. By focusing on the outcome rather than the activity (the test, paper, project, etc.), the process of achieving the outcome can be more flexible.
    • When designing a course, consider what other factors might impact learner outcomes what strategies you might use to address them.
    • Optimize individual choice and autonomy by providing students multiple task options to demonstrate mastery and, where possible, allow students to choose or adapt tasks to align with their personal interests or career goals.

Driver’s ed

Promote disciplinary expertise: While we often highlight the “transferable skills” we teach in the classroom, we shouldn’t neglect centering the disciplinary skillset and expertise that students gain in our courses. Helping students identity disciplinary habits can help them to see themselves in the discipline and in future careers. Most of my students didn’t become musicologists, but I do think they learned to listen for the context that always exists in music, just like musicologists do. Helping students draw these connections between what they learn in the classroom and what they will do in the real world will help them become expert learners who can make those connections on their own.

    • Include activities that mirror and prepare students for professional experiences.
    • Encourage students to “think” in the discipline by demonstrating how you, the disciplinary expert, would think through and approach a problem.

The journey is the destination

Focus on the process, not just the outcome: Students often equate success only with good outcomes (e.g. good grades) and tend to ignore the process they followed to get there. To combat this, I would include post-test reflections that guided my students to deconstruct their own processes so they could then iterate and make improvements. Expert learners know that learning isn’t magic or some mysterious force, but a process that can be tested and refined over time.

    • Include metacognitive activities in your course, especially after assessments.
    • Encourage students to share their learning processes and strategies with each other by setting aside class time or assigning out of class activities to facilitate this sharing.

Travel log

Guide self-reflection: Awareness of one’s own learning habits, strengths, and weaknesses is a powerful tool for students. By providing space in my classroom for self-reflection, I was able to help students see learning as something that is in their control – a hallmark of an expert learner.

    • A habit of self-reflection can be hard to begin if prompts are too open ended. Structured and targeted prompts can help students build their reflective practice.

Have you found ways to help your students chart their own courses, to learn how to learn? Share your experience in the comments below.

Headshot of Mary Helen Hoque

Mary Helen Hoque is a Learning Experience Designer at CETLOE. “Donut” get her started on her love for doughnuts, no matter how you spell it.