How to learn anything in three simple steps!

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Revision and Exam Preparation, Teaching Ideas

When students understand ThemEd's three steps of learning it can give them the confidence and strategies to learn independently, which makes a teacher's job as facilitator of learning so much easier.

I devised this three-step approach to learning for my students last year during exam revision.

  • Find what you need to know

  • Find your knowledge gaps

  • Fill your knowledge gaps

This approach helps me articulate to my students the process of learning, which also helps me discuss their progress during assigned revision times. The language of this post is how I would talk to my students.

I like this approach because it’s simple, yet effective. It also has the potential to stay with students for a long time.

Using the language of “building blocks” and “relationship chains” during the revision process also made this a little easier for some students to comprehend.

Step One: Find what you need to know

It’s my job as your teacher to tell you exactly what you need to know, understand and be able to do. After all, how are you supposed to be learn if you don’t know what you’re supposed to learn?

What you need to learn for IB Psychology comes from the guide. I also like to break this down and re-write it a little more clearly, which I put in student workbooks for each unit (including revision materials).

If you don’t know what you need to know, then you need to ask and find out!

Note for teachers: I put all my guiding questions and learning outcomes for each unit at the beginning of my workbooks; the more I can have everything in one place for ease of student reference the better. The guiding questions in the textbook for each lesson are the outcomes basically (just re-word with the word “explain” at the beginning).

Step Two: Find your knowledge gaps

It’s my job as your teacher to teach you everything you need to know. However, by the end of a unit it’s likely that you missed some things and need a bit of clarification on others. This is absolutely OK, but finding your knowledge gaps during revision is mostly your job. I can’t read your mind and it’s more efficient if you tell me what you don’t know than having me try to guess.

A knowledge gap is a gap in your knowledge – it’s where you’ve found something you need to know, but you don’t know it yet. 

The most effective way to learn is to be finding and filling your knowledge gaps throughout every lesson – don’t wait til’ the very end to do it all.

A good place to start finding knowledge gaps is to look at the key terms for the unit. Go through these and make sure you know what these terms mean. You’ll also need to understand the relevance of the key terms and how to apply them properly, which is where another place to look for knowledge gaps is to study the guiding questions from each lesson.

The guiding questions and learning outcomes for each unit are also important places to find knowledge gaps, especially as you’re trying to create relationship chains, as guiding questions and outcomes are all about how things are related. For example:

  • How do hormones influence behaviour?
  • How does study x demonstrate theory y?
  • How does culture influence behaviour?
  • How does neurotransmission influence behaviour?

One learning outcome from Criminology, for instance, is “Explain how one hormone (testosterone) affects one behaviour.” You might know what testosterone and aggression are, but perhaps you can’t quite see how testosterone affects aggression. Constructing relationship chains (perhaps in the form of a flow diagram) is a good place to find where your gap in knowledge is. For instance, perhaps you know that testosterone affects the amygdala and amygdala activation is associated with emotional arousal, but you can’t quite get to the last step where this leads to aggression – that’s when you move on to step three!

Step Three: Fill your knowledge gaps

Once you’ve found a knowledge gap, you have to fill it. This is a joint effort between teacher and student. However, you’re most likely to remember it in the long-term if you think for yourself, work hard, consult the resources you have and really try to fill in the gap for yourself. But don’t forget my job as your teacher is to teach you, which means it’s my job to help fill your knowledge gaps. But again, I’m not a mind reader and I can’t know what you know and what you don’t know – this is where asking for help is essential.

Keeping good notes, discussing with classmates, using the textbook and this blog are also effective ways of filling your knowledge gaps.

It’s at this step where it can also be valuable to get feedback on practice answers or even just notes you’ve written.

So to recap, the three steps to learn anything are Find, Find, Fill!

  1. Find what you need to know

  2. Find your knowledge gaps

  3. Fill your knowledge gaps

The more you find the more you can fill, and the more you fill the more you’ve learned.

I will be putting this and other similar frameworks in our revision guide (coming soon) and our guide to writing exam answers in IB Psychology (also coming soon).

I’m looking forward to using this from the beginning with my new IB Psychology students who start on Monday.

As always, feedback welcome in the comments.