For many entering students, high school is their only point of reference. Thus, many first-year Carleton students bring learning habits that were successful for them in high school. These habits will — and must — evolve in order for students to be successful at Carleton and in their disciplines.

This section describes how prefects can help students make the transition from high school learning patterns to those that characterize college learning and learning in the disciplines.

The Prefect’s Dilemma

In an ideal world, each student in your class would be motivated primarily by trying to be an excellent student in that discipline. In an ideal world, students would have made an attempt to work through the homework before coming to the prefect sessions. Students would take the time and effort to really understand the concepts. They would take ownership of the prefect sessions, seeing you as a facilitator of their own effort to come to grips with the material.

Here are some guidelines that might be useful to you in making decisions about how to approach and conduct your sessions:

  • Attitude – No matter how frustrated you may feel, or how demanding students may seem, try to keep things in perspective. Be patient with them and with yourself. Go easy on yourself, and on them. Try to keep your sense of humor; laughter will keep many awkward predicaments from turning into open conflict. And keep a sense of humility about yourself. Avoid taking resistance personally; be open to learning from your students, and from the situation.
  • Communication – Tell students why you are emphasizing active learning strategies in the prefect sessions. For instance, show them Bloom’s taxonomy. If you choose for instance not to go over homework in a session, explain why you think the approach you’re using will be more effective for them in the long run, while being empathetic about their short-term needs.
  • Take the long view – Think of trying to move your students from dependence on you to greater independence by the end of the term.


Throughout the term, but especially in the first few weeks, it is essential that you give students many opportunities to give you feedback. Leave some time at the end of each session to ask how the sessions are going for them, or ask them to send you an email.

It may become clear quickly that some students are looking for something that they are not likely to find in your prefect sessions, e.g., quick answers, an exclusive focus on their problems, a place to do the homework, a lecture-review of everything they missed in the prerequisite course, etc. The Prefect Program is a collaborative program and assumes that both students and prefects are continuing to learn.

You ultimately decide that no changes are warranted; the Prefect Program can’t be all things to all people. If you are contemplating changes, though, consider the following questions:

  • Does the change shift responsibility for learning from the student to you?
  • Is the change in the interests of the group (not just the individual)?
  • Is the change within the boundaries of what feels comfortable to you?

If you don’t know what to do with the feedback you are getting, see Kathy or Russ, or raise the issue at one of your regular Prefect Program meetings with fellow prefects.

Learning Strategies

The sources of learning in most courses are: lecture (e.g. what the instructor does in class), the texbook(s) and workbook(s), labs, exams, homework, and handouts. The Prefect’s job is to show students how to learn effectively from these sources, not to duplicate these sources or to serve as an additional source, i.e., to re-lecture. The Prefect Program should instead combine what-to-learn and how-to-learn strategies.

You will need to incorporate attention to study skills into your discussions of the material. Make this attention context-specific. Talk about note-taking when students don’t seem to have grasped the main points of the lecture. Talk about textbooks when they’ve overlooked an important graph. Introduce learning about learning in response to immediate perceived needs. In practice, then, you will be reinforcing good study skills throughout the term as needed, not in separate sessions or just in the first weeks.

Learning from Lecture Notes

It goes without saying that students are taking notes in class. Refer students to their notes when they have questions that the notes might clarify. And teach them the PHCAS method — outlined below — for rewriting their class notes. Lecture notes are useless if they aren’t used.

Students begin with an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, with a vertical line drawn 1/4 of the way across. Their class notes are on the right-hand side, on the front of each sheet only. Then, in a prefect session, put the main headings (in italics) on the board.

  • Pull out the main ideas, state the structure of argument, note significant statements, definitions, key words, mnemonics, or anything that further explains the statements taken during the lecture. This can be viewed as margin noting the lecture notes using the left-hand column. Seek to reveal the structure of the lecture.
  • Highlight main ideas and important vocabulary using different colored highlighters. The color coding will make for easy access to the information.
  • Compare notes with a study partner and fill in any gaps in information. If possible, find a study partner who has different, complementary strengths.
  • Ask questions about the information. Group your questions into three types:
    • Clarification questions
    • Association questions (how terms /concepts relate to other terms/concepts)
    • Possible test questions
  • Summarize the main ideas for the page at the bottom.

Go through these steps as a group with students’ own notes. You may want to pair them up for a few minutes for the comparison section.

One prefect session spent on this topic may make a tremendous difference in how much students get out of lecture.

Learning from Textbooks

Different courses incorporate the textbook (if there is one) in different ways. In some classes, the textbook is there for a reference, rather than to be read regularly. In some classes, it’s good at least to skim the assigned reading before the lecture. In others, students use the reading to fill in the blanks left from the lecture. Please share with students your own insights into how the textbook is best used. (Make sure that you have received a copy of the textbook. If you haven’t, ask the course instructor for a free desk copy.)

Here are some additional ways you can help students make the most of their reading:

As the prefect, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What should students know when they finish this chapter? What are the major concepts that the students should understand? What supporting information or details should they remember on a long-term basis?
  • What should students be able to do when they finish the chapter? What background information is essential to perform the required task?

If you determine that students do not know what they should know, or cannot do what they should do, then find out why. Don’t fill in the blanks — help them to use the textbook more effectively.

  • Draw attention to the parts of the book that you believe are important for success in this course. Ask students why these parts are important.
  • Encourage students at least to skim assignments before the topic is discussed in class. This preview will begin to build a schema in which to organize what they hear in the lecture. Moreover, previewing the reading will help them to manage better their time and information gathering.
  • Review the importance of reading charts, graphs, and diagrams.
  • Help students formulate questions from textbook headings, vocabulary, and diagrams; then to answer those questions.
  • Integrate lecture notes into readings. Does the information in the text complement or extend the lecture information?
  • Show students how to supplement their notes using the index of the text. For example, topics may not be addressed within the pages assigned. Check the index to see if the topic is addressed in another section of the text.

Learning from Homework, Especially Problem Sets

The term “homework” implies any assignment that involves the active application of knowledge gained in the textbook and lecture/class discussion to solve specific problems. The most common homework of this sort is “problem sets.” Many students, given the furious pace of academic life at Carleton, treat such problem sets not as opportunities to learn, but tasks to be finished as quickly as possible. Part of your job as prefect is to help students see the important of doing homework thoroughly and reflectively.

If you think back to Bloom’s taxonomy, you’ll remember that most homework occurs at the “application” stage of learning. Students are being asked to reinforce and demonstrate what they’ve learned in some applied fashion. When students have difficulty with homework, it is frequently because they:

  • Do not really understand the steps they follow to resolve the problem, but are trying to use the recipe approach, blindly applying a set of instructions.
  • Haven’t spent enough time recognizing what the problem is, so use the wrong formula or procedure in resolving it.
  • Lack the patience to sit with a problem for a while, to leave it and come back to it, to sweat over it.
  • Don’t understand the relevance of the problems for what they are learning in the course.
  • Look for shortcuts to find the right answer, while skimping on the process.

You can help them avoid all of these difficulties.

  • Make sure that students have mastered the requisite knowledge before they move to the problem sets. Sometimes students are under the impression that doing the problems will teach them what they need to know. This is not always the case. If a student has difficulty with a problem, always determine first whether the difficulty is of this sort.
  • Help students really understand problem-solving by having them put the steps to resolution in their own words. Have the students record the steps in everyday English on the board before proceeding. Make sure they know why it’s done this way.
  • Spend considerable time having students set up problems that they don’t actually solve. Which formula(s) or approach(es) could they use, and why?
  • Keep telling the students what the homework is for, that it is supposed to be hard, and that they will learn a tremendous amount by starting early, and working thoroughly and thoughtfully.
  • Avoid doing homework problems in the prefect sessions. Find, or create, problems that are like those in the homework. This will keep students from becoming overly dependent on the prefect sessions and will give them additional practice.
  • Bring in real-life applications of what they are doing in their homework; call their attention to how the skills they are learning are relevant in the remainder of the course and in the discipline generally.
  • When a student is doing boardwork, have him/her talk out loud about what he/she is doing. “Instrumental speech” is an important part of the learning process; all students will gain confidence through this practice.

In most of the courses with prefect sessions, problem-solving is at the center of the curriculum. One of the most important things you can teach students in a prefect session is an effective way to approach problem-solving.

Learning from Exams

A chemistry prefect once commented, “Any chemistry student can have a bad exam. The difference is that good chemistry students learn from their bad exams, whereas bad students trash them.” Consider devoting the first session after exams are returned to a post-mortem. Advertise what you will be doing in the session. During your prefect session, you will of course want to discuss those parts of the exam that were most problematic. But be sure to discuss exam preparation as well. The following questions might be useful in structuring a discussion:

  • Which part of the exam was easiest for you? Why?
  • Which part of the exam was the most difficult? Why?
  • Which of the following activities did you complete prior to the exam?
    • All required reading assignments
    • Preparation and review of reading notes
    • Review of lecture notes
    • Self-testing
    • Prediction of possible questions
    • Study with friends
    • Other
  • Which of the above did you find most helpful?
  • How much time did you spend in preparation?<
  • Did you feel prepared when you walked into the exam? Why or why not?
  • What changes might you make in the way you study for the next exam?

Students should take away from your session the sense that they are responsible for their performance on the exam, and that they can improve their performance through their own efforts. However, if they make no changes, they should not expect a different outcome!

Nomenclature: Learning the Language of the Discipline

Some courses with prefect components are very oriented towards key concepts and vocabulary, in particular, biology and economics. In these courses, as in others, it is essential that students learn and use the language of the discipline. Prefects can help in this process by themselves using this language at every opportunity, and by insisting that students use the language as well. Help them to move from everyday language to the language of the discipline and back. Ask frequently, “How would you say that in economese?” And spend some time in your sessions helping them learn how to learn vocabulary and concepts. While putting key concepts in simple language may be helpful initially, they will eventually need to learn the language of the discipline.

Problem-Solving Strategies

Many of your prefect sessions will be problem-solving ones. These sessions are opportunities to present problem-solving strategies that the instructor simply doesn’t have time to discuss. What happens for instance if a student doesn’t know how to attack a problem? What happens if they get stuck in the middle of solving a problem? These sessions are also opportunities for students truly to understand how a problem is resolved, rather than just trying to plug numbers into a formula.

Students are more likely to focus on the strategies themselves (and not just the problem) if you present problems that are not in the homework, but similar to them.

You can organize problem-solving sessions around a particular model for resolving problems. Put the following grid on the board. Explain that the numbered items in the second row represent the steps students can take in approaching a problem. The third row contains the information asked for in the second row. When you turn to a specific problem, the students themselves should fill in the columns. Do the first problem as a group, to model the procedure.

  1. List prerequisite knowledge – Include relevant equations, formulas, charts, and general rules for solving this type of problem, along with the source.
  2. List steps in the solution – These steps should be numbered, formulaic, using the language of the discipline, and including why each step is done.
  3. Describe these steps – These steps should be numbered as in #2, but translated into a narrative description in the students’ own words.
  4. Solve a similar problem – Apply steps 1-3 to a particular problem.

If you think back to our discussion of learning hierarchies, you can imagine the value of the first three steps. Students recall the knowledge they need for this particular application, and demonstrate an understanding of the requisite knowledge. They verbalize both the what and the why. Students ask questions and check their understanding as they go. Numbering the sub-routines is helpful to them in an exam situation, because much of the problem-solving process will become routine.

Ten Tips for Teaching Problem-Solving Skills [1]

Here are further suggestions for teaching students problem-solving, so that they become reflective learners.

  1. Try beginning each segment of a class by setting up a problem and explaining why it is interesting and important.
  2. Rather than asking students to memorize a formula, teach them how to derive the formula and identify its parts.
  3. Try the step by step approach described above to solve problems. Ask small questions along the way so that students can see how the solution is being calculated and can confront similar questions with the same strategy.
  4. Encourage students to imagine ways of solving the problem before you begin to work on the solution together. This takes advantage of the skills the students already have and encourages them to actively extend their knowledge.
  5. Try asking them to state a proposed method for solving the problem rather than asking them for the solution to a problem. For example, ask, “How should I begin to work on this problem?” instead of “What is the answer to this problem?”
  6. Encourage questions from the class and then avoid answeing them directly. Make sure everyone hears and understands the question and then start working on an answer as a group.
  7. If you maintain a high degree of interaction with the students throughout the session, they may be more willing to participate and ask questions. The earlier in the class the students are encouraged to talk, the more likely it is that they will contribute for the rest of the class session.
  8. Try solving the problem in two different ways. This gives students a sense of how best to approach a problem, and it may prevent mistakes. This technique also holds the students’ attention because they will want to see if the answer is the same in both cases.
  9. To help the students learn to formulate problems as well as find answers to problems, present students with situations or problems and encourage them to develop questions for themselves. This enables students to see how work is done at advanced levels in their discipline.
  10. Before moving on to the new concept, try asking students specific questions about a representative problem to test for learning. Students will often avoid responding to general questions, such as “Does everyone understand?” A more specific question will help you determine how well the audience is working with the material.

[1] Adapted adapted from information in Teaching at Stanford: An Introductory Handbook for Faculty, Academic Staff/Teaching, and Teaching Assistants, 1989.