Book Review: Saundra Yancy McGuire, Teach Students How to Learn

By Timothy Cochran

As the title suggests Saundra Yancy McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation (Sterling: Stylus, 2015) is filled with tools for helping students become aware of the “learning process” (2). To increase competency, confidence, and a desire to learn, McGuire offers a menu of techniques that are exceptionally simple, practical, and direct, which she invites us to make explicit in the classroom. For example, she suggests:

● Teaching students to become conscious of their “level of learning” on Bloom’s taxonomy (37).

● Teaching students to recognize the “difference between studying and learning” (31) and to grow in knowledge by not only completing homework and taking notes but also by attempting to teach course material to peers (or, if that produces anxiety, to a stuffed animal) (33, 55).

● Teaching students explicitly how to develop a “study cycle” of previewing a text (i.e., orienting oneself in the text by briefly looking over subheadings, bolded words, first sentences, etc. (46)) before reading, going to class, reviewing notes immediately, completing short review sessions each day, then reflecting on the effectiveness of these learning techniques and identifying needs (39).

● Teaching students how to adopt a “growth mindset” rather than assuming that “intelligence is static” (62).

Although the book can be repetitive and self-congratulatory in tone and the examples come primarily from the sciences, many of the principles can be adapted to a range of circumstances without requiring an entire shift in pedagogical philosophy. I have not adopted McGuire’s method as a whole, but I have tried a number of her approaches including asking students in Music History II last spring to articulate the distinction between studying and learning (31) and to commit to trying out two approaches during the term (see p. 132); I collated and distributed the anonymous answers for reinforcement. Aspects of the study cycle have been highlighted in my classes from time to time as well.

I came to McGuire’s volume through the Pedagogy Book Club at my institution (Eastern Connecticut State University). This group, founded two years ago, brings together new and continuing faculty who all read a book prior to the beginning of a semester and then gather for discussion.

Although I have found reading books like this about pedagogy to be useful, the book club itself has been the most valuable part of the experience. My discussion table for McGuire’s book featured a wide range of responses, from those who saw it as salvation for helping students succeed in traditionally difficult courses (mostly in the sciences) to those who questioned the book’s cure-all presentation and frequent recourse to test scores in success stories as markers of deep learning. It occurs to me that a pedagogy book club is not really about the book so much as the chance to wrestle with ideas and the tensions they create within our pedagogies in a community of diverse perspectives on teaching and learning. We need these kinds of interdisciplinary forums to help us become aware of, evaluate, and expand the tools in our music-pedagogical toolboxes.