College Quarterly
Winter 1998 - Volume 5 Number 2

Teaching that Limits Learning.

by Dennis Congos


After counseling and teaching in learning skills for over 20 years, I have observed that many school teachers/administrators do not offer to students the same courtesies extended to casual dinner guests. A courteous and gracious host customarily sees to it that proper utensils such as china, silverware, and drinking vessels are provided for efficient, pleasurable, and beneficial consumption of a meal. In contrast, many schools invite students to the feast of knowledge, yet, unlike dinner guests, students are expected to bring their own utensils for assimilating and benefiting from this intellectual meal. In learning, these utensils are called the "tools for learning" and consist of skills such as note taking, textbook reading, test preparation, memory and concentration, listening skills, and problem solving techniques, to name a few. If students do not bring these "utensils" for learning or are not skilled in their appropriate use, a common instructor or administrator response is to fault the student for not having them! This is like blaming a bottle for what it does and does not contain. To a great degree, students and bottles only have what was put there. The question arises, "Whose responsibility is it to see that our students have the tools for learning?"

The joy of learning is in the learning, not in the content. Without the tools for learning, sufficient knowledge in their proper use, and experience in their application, then learning may not only be an unpleasant process but nearly impossible. What good are facts and ideas if they cannot be understood, assimilated, and used? Studying, understanding, and applying knowledge is where the joy lies and these are all processes essential to learning.

As an instructor and counsellor, I see and hear of instances from students where teachers demean students for underdeveloped learning skills and refuse to help with refinement of these tools so essential for learning. In some cases, these responses from teachers emanate from a lack of knowledge of the tools for learning and how to teach them. In other instances, this response is from a resistance or refusal to even deal with the subject of learning skills.

Some teachers and administrators simply do not see any relationship between the tools for learning, learning ability, and knowledge acquisition. I have often seen and heard about treatment of students that these same instructors and administrators would not tolerate for their own sons or daughters. One college faculty member said to me "students should already have the necessary study skills for learning when they take my class." "Absolutely correct," I replied. But, the reality of the matter is that students bring many different educational backgrounds and experiences with them when they enter a class. Some, although few, have even had direct and intentional instruction in study skills. If we choose to deal with reality instead of "shoulds", schools must be prepared to help students acquire and refine the skills for knowledge acquisition. To be effective our schools need to incorporate learning skills strategies in the curriculum. If we believe in the potential of our sons and daughters to succeed, then what is the role of our schools in teaching the tools for learning the knowledge our schools try to teach? Should schools be teaching students how to learn or should schools simply be deliverers of subject matter and not concern themselves with a student's ability to assimilate it?

In an ideal school system, learning skills should be interwoven into every class and/or taught directly in sessions attached to regularly scheduled classes. The paradox that exists in our schools is perplexing. We teach students to compute in our math courses. We teach students to write in our English courses. We teach students to think in our philosophy courses. We teach students to analyze in our chemistry courses. We teach students to teach in our education courses. We teach students to speak in our language courses. We teach students to perform in our fine arts courses. We teach students to manage in our business courses. Why in the world wouldn't we also teach students the tools for learning which are absolutely indispensable for learning to compute in math, to write in English, to think in philosophy, to analyze in chemistry, to teach in education, to speak in our language courses, to perform in our fine arts courses, to manage in business courses? There is a serious gap in logic and reason here. What is found too often are teachers and administrators resistant to teaching their students the tools needed for learning? Many schools systems are even resistant to teacher development programs that help teachers learn how to incorporate the indispensable skills for learning into subject matter.

A good educator teaches the tools for learning subject matter along with course content. But the analogy of the bottle applies to teachers here, also. It is unproductive to blame teachers for knowledge they don't have. On the other hand, it is fair to blame teachers and administrators for this shortcoming when the knowledge is available and if they refuse to learn and incorporate it into teaching. Furthermore, it is fair to hold colleges and universities responsible for not requiring courses in teacher education curriculum that teach the skills essential for learning and how to incorporate them into subject matter. School systems should also have a visible mechanism for training and rewarding teachers and administrators who do incorporate the skills for learning subject matter in their curriculum. Tradition is a difficult thing to change and many teachers and administrators close their eyes to the obvious by ignoring the research findings that indicate that the refinement of skills for learning promotes academic success. We have known for a long time of the positive effects of helping students refine skills for learning. Below is a sampling of that research:

A College Entrance Examination Board book entitled The Basic Academic Competencies says, " competencies are set forth here because they constitute the key abilities in learning how to learn. Successful study skills are necessary for acquiring the other 5 competencies of reading, writing, speaking and listening, mathematical and reasoning as well as for achieving the desired outcomes. Students are unlikely to be efficient in any part of their work without them" (CEEB, 1981).

Students themselves understand the important of effective study skills. Smallwood (1980) found that students rated time management and efficient study as # 1 and #3 out of 17 concerns related to college. Hart and Keller (1980) state that "The freshmen students in this study placed the responsibility for their low grades on their lack of motivation, improper study habits, and inattention to school work. A majority indicated that their failure to schedule time easily, to develop adequate study habits, to keep up with course work, and to learn how to study well were major or moderate reasons for their lack of academic accomplishments".

Hodgkinson (1987, p.17) notes that, "Many dropouts and flunk-outs are bright enough to do college work, but have never learned how to study effectively, nor how to take tests and do good written work". We have known for along time in educational literature, that "…on the average, at least ? a letter grade’s worth of improvements in content learning follows from instruction in study skills" (Wark, 1975).

Many students realize the importance of learning skills in learning. In a survey of college freshman, 42.6% of students indicated that one very important reason for deciding to go to college was to improve reading and study skills (Astin, 1994).

School systems must take the initiative to develop a formal mechanism to help teachers acquire, refine, and teach the tools essential to learning subject matter along with that subject matter. There is a need for teacher development training that teaches learning skills and how to weave these skills into the classroom. Colleges and universities must make the teaching of the tools for learning an integral part of teacher education curricula. School administrators must realize that unless the skills essential to learning are properly applied to subject matter, poor learning will always be a major problem in our school systems.

Before school systems can raise academic performance:

  1. teachers and school administrators must recognize and acknowledge the indispensable relationship between learning skills and the acquisition of knowledge. Learning skills are as essential to learning as air is to life.
  2. school systems must provide appropriate financial and promotional rewards to teachers when the tools for learning are incorporated into subject matter,
  3. teachers must be willing to learn more about tools essential for the learning and understanding of their curriculum,
  4. administrators and teachers need to use existing diagnostics to assess what are the tools for learning that students bring to class,
  5. administrators and teachers need to know what are the tools that "A" students possess and how these tools are successfully applied to learn subject matter,
  6. teachers need to know how best to teach learning skills to students (with diverse learning styles) as they are needed and in a timely manner,
  7. instructors and administrators must realize that it is ONLY through the application of the tools for learning to the subject matter that the knowledge is gained for grades.
  8. attitudes like "learning skills are something peripheral and auxiliary to learning" must be changed. That attitude makes as much sense as a brick mason saying that bricks, cement, trowels, levels, etc. and knowledge on how to use these tools and supplies properly aren't essential to building a brick house,
  9. and teachers must recognize that teaching the tools for learning is not someone else's job. That is like a host saying, "It is my responsibility to prepare the meal. If my guests do not bring their own means for eating my meal, that is not my fault." That is also like a doctor saying, "I only treat well patients."

What makes a school system great is not greater rigour or the presentation of more information to learn, more research, more courses, and more rhetoric. Greatness must be solely based on how much students learn. There is an interesting poser related to the question, "Can there be teaching without someone there who learns what is taught?" This is akin to the argument, "Is there sound if no one is present who hears?" Some say that without learning, what we commonly call teaching is just a talking head. A video tape player can do that. Learning begins with the application of skills for learning to subject matter. Maybe this is a clue to where teaching begins; making sure learners have these tools for learning.

In defence of teachers, it is unfair to blame them for not weaving learning skills into their subject matter if these teachers have not been taught this ability. On the other hand, it is equally unfair to present content knowledge in class not knowing if students have the tools for assimilating it or not. It is also unfair to refuse to incorporate the tools for learning into teaching course content.

I encourage readers to inquire of their schools how much the skills for learning are being taught. Inquire as to how much direct and intentional instruction in learning skills is going on in the classroom. Skills for learning should be taught every year of school. For parents of graduating high school seniors, inquire of colleges and universities of choice how much proactive and direct assistance is provided to students to refine the tools essential for learning. Virtually all institutions of higher education tout that they care about students. Here is one way to find out if their words are supported by actions. All teacher education programs should have a required course in the most efficient skills for learning. These programs should also have a required course in thinking, reasoning, analyzing, organizing, and other cognitive skills also important to learning. Prospective teachers should know about teaching and learning styles and the important role each plays in learning. Teachers should graduate from college knowing how to weave all this information into subject matter to increase their students' ability to learn the subject matter.

I have seen outstanding examples of teachers presenting subject matter in classes richly interwoven with the tools and skills necessary for learning that content. I have seen teachers incorporate tools for learning into regular homework assignments. These faculty members truly deserve the esteemed title of educator and are models of what good teaching is. I have heard them rave about how exciting their classrooms have become, how grades have improved, how students have gotten more involved in learning, and how much more confidence is developed among their learners. Isn't this how all of us want learning to be?


Astin, A. W., Korn, W. S. & Riggs, E. R. (1994). The American freshman: national norms for fall 1993. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, University of California. pp. 37-40.

The basic academic competencies. Preparation for college in the 1980’s (1981). New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 13-14.

Hart, D. & Keller, M. L. (1980). Self-reported reasons for poor academic performance of first-term freshmen. Journal of College Student Personnel, 21, 6, 529-534.

Hodgkinson, H.L. (1987). All One System. Washington, DC: Institution for Educational Leadership. p. 17.

Smallwood, K. B. (1980). What do adult women college students really need? Journal of College Student Personnel, 21, 1, 65-77.

Wark, D. (1975). Raising student outcomes by means of learning skills. In D. Allen et al., (eds). Reform, renewal, reward. Proceedings of the International Conference on Improving Universities.

Dennis Congos is a Learning Skills Lab Facilitator in the Academic Learning Center of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC . He welcomes comments from readers and can be reached at:


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1998 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology