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Teaching Urban High School Students 'How To Learn' Boosts Grades

COLUMBUS , Ohio – A new study suggests that before urban high school students learn the “three Rs,” they can benefit by learning a little psychology.

Researchers found that high school students who took a class that taught learning and motivation strategies improved their grade point averages significantly when compared to comparable students at the same high schools who didn't take the class.

Bruce Tuckman

In one school, for example, students who took the class had GPAs that were an average of 0.4 points higher than other students for the term.

“The results were pretty impressive given some of the challenging circumstances, such as technology that didn't work smoothly all the time, and the fact that sometimes teachers had trouble keeping their students on task,” said Bruce W. Tuckman, a professor of education at Ohio State University who designed the class.

Tuckman recently presented the results at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

The class taught students to overcome procrastination, build self-confidence and responsibility, manage their lives, learn from lecture and text and prepare for exams.

“It's basically a psychology course, but we're not teaching students for purely academic reasons. Instead, we're teaching them to put these psychological principles into practice in their own lives,” Tuckman said.

The study involved teaching the class, called “Strategies for School Success,” as a one-term (18 week) course, meeting four hours a week. It was taught at two large, urban high schools in Columbus , and one in Kansas City .

All together, 150 10th to 12th grade students took the course, and they were compared with an equal number of students who didn't take the class. The percentage of African American students in the three high school samples ranged from 55 to 90 percent.

Researchers found that high school students who took a class that taught learning and motivation strategies improved their grade point averages significantly when compared to comparable students at the same high schools who didn't take the class.

Regular high school teachers taught the class; they were trained by Tuckman and his staff on the conceptual aspects of the course and the use of the required technology.

In one school, course-takers earned a GPA of 2.30 at the end of the term, compared to a GPA of 2.12 for non-takers. In another high school, students who took the course earned a GPA of 2.84, compared to 2.40 for the others. In the third school, course-takers earned 2.80, compared to 2.39 for the comparison students.

The course was modified from a similar “Strategies for Achievement” program that has been successfully taught to college students at Ohio State . An earlier study showed that Ohio State students who took the class had higher GPAs and were more likely to return for their next year of college than similar students who didn't take the class.

The high school class involved teaching the students four basic achievement strategies: taking reasonable risks, taking responsibility for actions, searching the environment for information, and using feedback. Each of the four strategies involved sub-strategies, and were based on well-founded psychological principles, he said.

The instructional design of the class is also innovative. The course was taught using a hybrid, web-based instructional model Tuckman developed called “Active Discovery And Participation Through Technology (ADAPT)." This hybrid includes some features of a traditional classroom, such as a textbook and a live instructor. But the students also had more than 200 computer-based activities they had to complete in the class.

Students don't just listen to the teacher lecture, he said. They have assignments to complete on the computer that helps them put into practice what they are learning.

For example, students are taught how to build a time management plan, and then have to create one for themselves on the computer.

“We're not just interested in getting them to acquire new information. We really want them to change their behavior, which is why they spend so much time in class completing assignments on the computer,” he said.

Tuckman said a class like this is important for inner-city students who don't learn the strategies for succeeding in school the way children in more advantaged communities typically do.

“Most of the students we are working with don't have role models who attended college. They don't grow up in environments where they pick up things like how to learn from a teacher's lecture, or how to manage their study time.”

But with the way schools are currently structured, there is currently no way to teach urban students these vital skills.

“When you look at the curriculum, it is divided into subjects – math is a subject, English is a subject and social studies is a subject. But learning how to learn is not a subject,” Tuckman said. “Students need to learn how to learn before they can master any of those subjects.”

The research was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.


Contact: Bruce Tuckman, (614) 688-8424; Tuckman.@osu.edu

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu