An amusing discussion to have with your students is to ask them how they think they learn best. Some will say they are visual learners, others hands-on learners, and some will let you know that they learn best from teachers who teach instead of wasting class time on impromptu discussions.

Of course, the myth that students have different learning styles – visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, etc. – has long been debunked. Students may think they learn best a certain way, but only instruction that matches how the content is best taught (e.g., basketball is hands-on, and music requires a lot of listening) and blends modalities appropriately (i.e., dual coding) is likely to be effective.

Students’ misconceptions about learning and teaching effectiveness extend beyond their imagination for learning styles. One article that covers this area of research very well is “On Students’ (Mis)judgments of Learning and Teaching Effectiveness” by Shana Carpenter and colleagues. In a review of the literature, the authors explain how student opinion – or “student voice” as it’s often called – about instructional matters is often inaccurate or counterproductive. Here’s a brief summary of their findings:

  1. There is often a mismatch between whether students have actually learned (as measured by assessments) and students’ impressions of learning
  2. Students are often overconfident, expecting to perform better than they do
  3. Students believe multimedia helps their learning, even in cases when it doesn’t
  4. Students prefer lecture-only lessons to lectures that include segments of active participation
  5. Students feel like they do not learn from effective techniques such as retrieval practice, interleaving, and spaced practice and believe they learn better from more passive approaches that require less effort
  6. Students evaluate lenient graders as being more effective
  7. Students evaluate enthusiastic, attractive, and entertaining instructors as being more effective
  8. Students favor organized instructors, even when perceived organization makes no difference in learning
  9. Students have biases against instructors with accents, non-white instructors, and female instructors
  10. Many college students admit to knowing peers who sabotage their instructors’ evaluations
  11. Students give better evaluations of teachers after they’re given chocolate

It’s important to note that many of the reviewed studies were of college-aged students; the highest performing, most sophisticated learners there are, by definition. These are students who have spent many years comparing instruction and teachers, and have developed learning strategies that have allowed them to reach the highest levels of education. We can’t expect that our youngest students will be more accurate in their judgements about learning and teaching effectiveness than college students.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I certainly wish that students made more accurate self-assessments, and expressed unbiased beliefs about what helps them learn. If this were true, we could simply ask students whether or not they’ve learned, and if they said yes, we could move on without checking for understanding. We could also be confident that the instructional techniques and grading practices that bring the most satisfaction to students would lead to the most learning. However, the literature presented by Carpenter et al. (2020) forces us to think a bit more critically on this front:

As we have seen, empirical research has provided a wealth of results showing that students are poor evaluators of their own learning, and that their subjective impressions of teaching effectiveness are vulnerable to many biases that are unrelated to teaching and learning… Does this make it risky for instructors to use effective learning techniques? Particularly early in their careers and in teaching-focused positions, instructors may find themselves faced with the difficult decision of whether to incorporate teaching practices that gain them recognition as effective instructors, even if such practices do not positively impact students’ learning.

Excerpted from Carpenter et al., 2020, pg. 7 and 8


Carpenter, S. K., Witherby, A. E., & Tauber, S. K. (2020). On students’ (mis)judgments of learning and teaching effectiveness. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

8 thoughts on “Do Students Have a Good Idea of What Helps Them Learn?

  1. Nice post! 🙂
    But, students are not learning professionals, we are. And the more we use informal self-assessments and learning checks, the more informed our students become about their own learning process. Obviously, the learning process should be discussed in the class, also, with metacognition and self-regulated learning practices. “Teaching effectiveness” is a sketchy concept to start with, just because learning and teaching are TWO DIFFERENT PROCESSES.

    And, yes, we should emphasize students’ voice and choice. But that is about their preferences for obtaining information and storing it in their memory, not about LxD (Learning experience design). Alas, all too often we just hope that students know how to learn. Research seems to suggest that is a misconception. Here is a great resource for college/uni learning design!

    Liked by 1 person

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