Learning Guides

Learning Guides describe and explain how to learn in a course

Learning Guides: Teaching Students How to Learn in Your Classes

Teachers often support student learning by providing study guides or guidelines for exams, assignments and projects. These typically focus on content, concepts and skills students should learn in the course. They may also include examples of exam questions, along with tips and suggestions about how to study and do well in the course. Guidelines may apply to the entire course or specific course requirements, e.g., exams, writing assignments, projects, lab reports, etc.

Study guides can be valuable resources to help students focus their attention on relevant course content and navigate unfamiliar course assignments. But abundant research has shown that college students also need explicit help and direction about how to learn the content and skills in their courses (Hartwig & Dunlosky, 2012; Kornell & Bjork, 2007; McCabe, 2011). To address the problem of teaching students to learn, I advocate the use of learning guides and guidelines that are closely attuned to the academic expectations, subject matter, and learning problems associated with courses.

A learning guide is a user manual about effective ways to learn the subject matter and skills in a course. Key features:

  • Based on research in the learning sciences. Empirical research evidence should inform the guide’s strategies and suggestions about how to learn in the course.
  • Target skills students need in specific course contexts. Guides should address general learning skills, such as practice testing, that apply broadly within and across disciplines. In addition they should focus subject-specific skills. For example, key skills for learning organic chemistry may be different from those in accountancy or philosophy, etc.
  • Promote metacognition and self-regulated learning. Learning guides should support students’ metacognition—awareness and knowledge of their learning, and ability to regulate their learning more effectively. The guide should help students recognize when, where and why specific strategies can improve their learning. In a sense, a learning guide contributes to the development of students’ learning expertise.
  • Incorporate change strategies. Learning guides are intended to change students’ understanding and practice of learning. Even if students understand the value of using different learning strategies, they may not be able to use them appropriately. Students need clear instructions about how to use strategies, and may also need help giving up old habits (ineffective strategies) and developing new ones (effective strategies). Instructors may need to use change strategies to help students adopt and maintain unfamiliar learning techniques.

Learning Guide Standard Content

Despite important differences across instructors, courses, subject matter, and course learning goals, learning guides should include the following standard contents.

  • descriptions of learning strategies relevant to the course
  • explanations about how and when to use the strategies for academic tasks in the class, e.g., preparing for exams, reading assignments, working on projects and assignments, in class activities.
  • explanations about why strategies support or do not support learning
  • directions about how to establish and follow a study plan that combines and coordinates strategies
  • descriptions of techniques and heuristics specific to learning the course subject matter and skills, e.g., special techniques for learning organic chemistry vs. reading poetry
  • ongoing opportunities for students to learn how to learn and to regulate their learning more effectively.

Examples of learning guide contents related to retrieval practice, spaced practice, and self-explanation

Extensive research has shown that retrieval practice, spaced practice and self-explanation are potent learning strategies.

  1. Retrieval practice involves trying to recall material one has read or studied without looking back at the material. In a course, retrieval practice can be implemented as low stakes practice tests and quizzes, text-embedded questions, flashcard practice, clicker questions in class, and students’ self-testing.
  2. Spaced practice (aka distributed practice) refers to a study schedule in which students distribute their study time over several periods instead of massing their study in one long session. For example, a student studies a total of five hours for an exam, in five one-hour time blocks spaced apart by 1-2 days between each, instead of cramming five hours the night before the exam. To implement spaced practice, instructors can hold practice test review sessions at specific intervals throughout a course.
  3. Self-explanation involves articulating the meaning of a concept, idea, solution or other type of subject matter to oneself or another person. Instructors can prompt students to self-explain through a variety of means. Students can also use self-explanation as an independent learning strategy.

The links below are guidelines for teachers and students related to retrieval practice, spaced practice and self-explanation.


Hartwig, M.K. & Dunlosky, J. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (2012) 19, 126. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-011-0181-y
Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2007). The promise and perils of self-regulated study. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 219–224.
McCabe, J. (2011). Metacognitive awareness of learning strategies in undergraduates. Memory & Cognition, 39, 462–476. doi: 10.3758/s13421-010-0035-2