Optimizing How We Learn

This Blog Post is written by Emma Young-Buchalter (she/her), 5th year Marketing co-op major with minors in Professional Communication and Sociology, and Milad Moghaddas (he/him), 5th year Entrepreneurship and Strategy major with a minor in Professional Communication, both of whom are Peer Academic Coaches at the Ted Rogers School’s Academic Success Centre (ASC). This blog post is part of the ASC’s “Teach Yourself How to Learn” weekly blog series based on Dr. Saundra Yancy McGuire’s book.

In continuing our deep dive into learning strategies and techniques that will take our learning to the next level, this post will explore metacognitive learning strategies to do just that. Let’s dive deeper into some strategies you can use to put metacognition to work.

Ten strategies to Optimize Your Academic Performance

Dr. Saundra Yancy McGuire starts chapter 5 by listing ten strategies to optimize our academic performance (check out page 40, to read it for yourself). She notes that you can pick and choose what works best for you, but states that there are “some strategies that are so effective – namely, the reading and homework strategies – that everyone should use them” (p. 41). So, we took each of these strategies, broke them down into what they mean, and shared our own experiences with you, so you can see how they work.

Here are the ten strategies:

1.    Preview Before Reading

The brain is known to do a much more efficient job at learning when it has a bigger picture first, and then dives in on the smaller individual pieces of information. This is why it is crucial to preview a chapter before you read it. Previewing a chapter may include looking over learning objectives, headlines, bold and italic text, images, charts and a list of key terms at the end of the chapter. Once you have this background information, you will have a much better idea about the larger picture of the chapter you’re reading. This larger picture is essential to have before attending a lecture as it allows you to follow along effectively.

I personally found the previewing strategy especially rewarding when I took LAW 122, since this course was very reading heavy. After implementing the preview method, my understanding while I read the chapter improved and I felt more engaged during lectures.

2.    Develop Questions

While you preview a chapter or a reading, it’s important to develop questions based on what you read. For example, if you see the terms “causal ambiguity” and “tacit knowledge,” you may ask yourself “How do these concepts work together?” or even “What is tacit knowledge and how does it relate to the chapter title ‘internal analysis’?” You can also utilize questions that may already be created at the end of the chapter. Having questions in mind before you read allows your brain to try and make sense of what you are reading. It also provides a sense of focus: if you don’t find the answers to the questions you’ve come up with, it’s a good idea to reread and check your understanding. It will also provide a sense of focus because if you don’t find the answers to these questions, you may have to go back and reread and check your understanding.

When I completed MKT 100, each chapter almost always included numerous course concepts that I often found very similar in nature. Therefore, when I would preview each chapter by reviewing its learning objectives, I would ask myself questions such as, “How does market penetration differ from market expansion?” By developing questions prior to reading the material, I had already established my own deliverables and objectives that I had aimed to gain from the reading.

3.    Paraphrase
Beyond answering questions, paraphrasing is another step in the active reading process that can improve your understanding. After you read each paragraph in your reading, try to immediately paraphrase it to yourself and then the information from the paragraphs before it, too. If you can’t, then you can take this as a sign that you need to reread the paragraph. This method allows information to be divided up into manageable chunks, but it keeps all the information in one logical flow in your brain.

I find this works especially well for courses like ECN 204 where all the moving parts of a chapter are easy to confuse.

Milad: When I completed MHR 523, there were many course concepts that were rather dense and technical in scope, including recruitment and selection, hiring and training and compensation. Given that both the midterm and final exam included short and long answer questions, I paraphrased the material taught throughout the textbook to ensure I could easily apply the varying theories to the specific examples in the exam questions. Additionally, paraphrasing allowed me to simplify the jargon that was used to explain several course concepts, and made it easier to remember the material.

4.    Flashcards

Testing your knowledge goes beyond doing the reading. Flashcards are a quick and easy way to check your understanding, and are especially relevant for courses that focus on defining and explaining concepts. The ASC has an Effective Flashcard tip sheet which goes over the basics of how to make an effective flashcard, such as ensuring you define words that you don’t understand in the definition and adding graphic cues and examples.

Emma: This is one strategy that I have used a lot throughout my time at university. I love to use Quizlet, a free online flashcard resource, and I have made sets for most of the classes I have taken that are content-heavy, including the sociology courses I took as liberals.

5.    Use the textbook even if it’s not required

The concepts and terms that are on the tests may be in the PowerPoint slides, but the full descriptions and concepts behind these terms are probably not. It may seem like you have the whole picture when you read slides, but the truth is, it’s usually a summarized version. This can work well for when professors want to cover everything in the chapter in class, but they may not include key information that could make it easier for you to understand why a process works a certain way or certain examples of when that concept could be used.

Emma: When I took MKT 702, the slides were quite light and the main concepts were covered, but there was a lot of key information behind the topics in the textbook that allowed me to understand all the small details of what I should include in a marketing plan, which was essential for the final exam and report in the class.

6.    Attend class and take notes by hand

With today’s technology, many students now complete their notes on their laptops, tablets or even smartphones for convenience and speed. However, recent studies have demonstrated that taking notes by hand results in more learning compared to taking notes with a digital device, as students are forced to paraphrase when they complete their notes by hand (Muller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Often when you write your notes on your laptop, you are inclined to simply copy and paste exactly what is written on the PowerPoint slides. However, given the manual nature of writing notes, you will find yourself inclined to pause as you’re writing to ensure you understand what is being explained. It is these moments of critical thinking and reflection that will facilitate your deeper understanding of the course material.

Although our learning is currently virtual, when the return to in-person learning occurs, sitting in one of the front rows of your class is recommended to maximize your learning experience. Near the front of the class, you can easily see and hear your instructor and their presentation materials, and you have a better chance at getting your questions answered.

In the meantime, however, there are several techniques you can utilize to remain engaged and attentive in a virtual classroom.

  • Ensure your camera is on during the class. That way, you won’t be tempted to wander away from the class, given that your actions are being seen by your professor and fellow classmates. It also gives you the opportunity to interact with your professor and your classmates.
  • Ensure all your other technology is turned off – smartphone, TV, tablets, etc. This eliminates opportunities for distractions. If tech isn’t the distraction, negotiate quiet/ distraction-free time with members of your household.
  • While everyone’s household is different, if possible designate a quiet space where you can spread out your study notes, books, laptop, etc. That way, as the professor speaks, your sole focus will be on notetaking and asking elaborative questions about the content.

Milad: When I completed MHR 523, there were many different HR concepts and theories to decipher. As I completed my notes by hand, I was able to easily differentiate between the concepts by incorporating my own paraphrasing and examples. More recently, when I completed CMN 306 virtually, I remained engaged by having a predetermined list of questions to ask the professor throughout the lecture. I prepared this list by developing questions as I was previewing the reading material ahead of class. Additionally, to remain engaged in CMN 306, I actively participated in the designated breakout sessions that the professor assigned. This included sharing my own thoughts and experiences on the questions that were asked of students during the breakout session.

7.    Do homework without using solved examples as a guide

This strategy is particularly useful for quantitative coursework where solving problems entails several steps – e.g. Statistics, Finance, and Accounting coursework. Homework and example problems in a textbook and class notes are the best opportunity to test yourself on the course material.

When you’re confronted with a challenging problem, you may be inclined to immediately check the textbook solution to determine exactly how the problem should be answered. However, that approach doesn’t identify what you currently do and do not understand. While it may be frustrating, if there is a question you do not know how to entirely solve, try your best to power through and arrive at an answer. Next, check only the final answer and not the steps taken to complete the solution. If your answer is incorrect, reread the class notes or text to investigate why and where you made mistakes. This approach facilitates deep learning. Finally, when you find the correct answer, compare your approach to that of the textbook or professor. If the approaches are different, aim to confirm with your instructor if both approaches are valid. With this strategy, you learn how to correct your mistakes, you never make the same mistake twice, and you learn to shift how you approach various problems.

8.    Teach material to a real or imagined audience

Teaching material to a real or imagined audience allows you to confirm and strengthen your own understanding of the material. By attempting to explain course concepts, you become aware of the gaps in your understanding or of details that may not be entirely clear to you. Next, you can clarify your confusion on your own or ask a fellow student or instructor.

Milad: When I completed QMS 202, I easily became confused with the varying tests and how they differ, e.g. T-Test, F-Test, Z-Test, One-Way ANOVA Test, etc. By teaching the material to a group of my friends (and preparing my own PowerPoint), I simultaneously confirmed my knowledge, clarified my own confusion, and helped strengthen my friends’ understanding.

9.    Work in pairs or groups

Working in pairs or groups not only allows you to bounce ideas off of each other, but it welcomes the opportunity to teach and learn from each other. By working in pairs or groups, you can evaluate each other’s thinking and understanding when looking to review course material and problems.

Milad: When I completed FIN 300, I often worked with several of my peers when preparing for both the midterm and final exam because of the difficulty I initially had with learning the material, given that it was the first Finance course I had ever taken. Doing so allowed me to immediately seek help from my peers if I became stuck on a question, and vice versa.

10.  Create practice exams

A challenge you may encounter when studying is applying course concepts to specific problems. Learning theories and formulas is one thing, but utilizing them for actual problems is something entirely different. Another challenge you may encounter is identifying what will be on your exam, particularly when your instructor is ambiguous. Both challenges reveal the purpose and benefit of practice exams. From your course outline, homework assignments, and quizzes, you can infer the topics and problem types that will appear on your exam. Next, you can create an outline of an exam or design your own practice exam by using the bank of problems in your textbook and, if applicable, supplemental optional problems offered by the instructor. Testing is a powerful tool to deepen and strengthen your learning.

Putting it all together

Overall, there are several metacognitive learning strategies you can use to elevate and deepen your learning. While some strategies may be preferable for some, we are confident your academic performance can be optimized by attempting to practice each strategy throughout your different courses. Yes, some strategies may be novel and uncomfortable for you to enact at first, but through practice and reflection, these ten strategies are designed to support your ability to put metacognition to work.

To learn more about metacognition, we encourage you to visit our Blog Post that goes into depth about how we think and learn. Additionally, the Academic Success Centre website includes a wide variety of learning resources, programs and supports, as well as tips sheets and videos designed to support your learning and academic performance.


Academic Success Centre (n.d.). Studying Online. https://www.ryerson.ca/tedrogersschool/success/learning/studying-online/.

McGuire, S., & McGuire, S. Y. (2018). Chapter 4. In Teach Yourself How to Learn: Strategies You Can Use to Ace Any Course at Any Level. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159–1168. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614524581.

The Learning Scientists (2019, December 12). GUEST POST: Learning Strategies for Academic Writing. https://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2019/12/12-1.