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Teaching Students How to Fish: The Next Step for Learning-Centered Teaching

Carl S. Moore, PhD

Assistant Director, Teaching and Learning Center, Adjunct Assistant Professor- Temple University

You may be aware of the age old saying, “give a [wo]man a fish and [s]he will eat for a day, teach a [wo]man how to fish and [s]he will eat for a lifetime.” I found this truism to be very applicable to work as a higher education administrator and teacher at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. It has oriented me with a mindset that aims to collaborate with students rather than direct them – to facilitate learning rather than force it. For in working with students and being learning-centered, we as teachers have the great opportunity to empower students to learn how to learn.

The “teaching students how to fish” concept first came to me when I was an undergraduate advisor experiencing the shift from prescriptive to developmental advising. In advising, we began to understand that helping students discover their own solutions through collaborative conversations and team-developed solutions was far better than prescribing and simply giving advice. I noticed that students who were asked more questions and coached through solving their problems were far more successful in their classes and in matriculating to graduation.

How does this relate to the classroom?

Higher education has seen a shift from teaching-centered learning to learning-centered teaching. Being learning-centered allows instructional practices to be driven by the learning outcomes of the course – focusing on what we want learners to learn versus focusing on what we want to teach. For example, wanting students to be able to identify elements on the periodic table requires a different teaching approach than simply telling students about the periodic table.

In the college classroom we are often teaching students what to learn and encouraging them in their learning but we rarely think about teaching them how to learn. This would not only help teachers who are faced with the challenge of meeting the unique needs of all learners, but it would also support students who need to be more self-sufficient as learners. Who says that students can only learn how to learn in tutoring centers, workshops, or in freshman orientation classes? How can we integrate teaching students to learn (to “fish”) within the context of our own courses?

Teaching students how to “fish” in the classroom setting does not have to be as complicated as it may seem. There are some simple considerations that we can keep in mind when we are teaching students how to “fish.” These include, but are not limited to, the following 5 areas:

  1. Teachers can encourage students to view themselves from a capacities and growth mindset (I can learn with adequate effort and use of appropriate strategies) rather than a fixed or deficiencies mindset (I’m just not smart enough). The capacity/growth mindset allows students to build on their learning strengths, to learn new strategies, and to realize that they can learn even difficult material – if they are willing to put forth the appropriate amount of time and effort. With this mindset, the student’s effort in terms of time and attention to the subject becomes the focus, not the student’s intellectual capacity. For example, rather than accepting a struggling student’s mindset that they “just can’t do math,” the instructor can work with the student to understand the importance of time and practice… Additionally, the instructor can tell the student to build on their study and learning techniques that work for them in other classes (e.g., work out the “odd” problems that have the answers in the back – more practice with immediate feedback – keep trying until they get it right).

  2. Students possess a wide range of learning preferences that allow them to be successful in some classes, but not others, depending on the course content. These learning preferences should be viewed as “muscles,” some being stronger than others. Realizing that individual academic “muscles” might be well developed (or might need strengthening) for what the class requires is different than thinking that individuals are “smart” (or challenged) in all contexts. When students do not have “muscles” that allow them to do well in that course it becomes the teacher’s role to encourage the students to build and develop those muscles.

  3. Students must be aware of how to complement your instructional approach with out-of-class studying and practice techniques. For example if you tend to primarily use lecture in class, perhaps students could use diagrams/graphic organizers and choose from out of class activities (e.g. field trips, online modules) to learn and solidify the material. Try providing a menu of assignment options and/or providing students with a list of optional assignments that allow them to reinforce/practice/learn content in a way that is more aligned with their interest.

  4. College teachers have the opportunity to teach students how to “fish” through direct learning outcomes. Fink’s work on significant course design provides key considerations for teaching students how to learn. He offers learning outcomes that encourage students to learn how to learn. How might your course (and student learning) be strengthened if one of your target learning outcomes is focused on the process of learning material in discipline?

  5. Last, yet perhaps most significant, concerns a student’s ability to be a self-directed learner. This requires teachers to provide opportunities to assist students with the development of their metacognition abilities. Metacognition is best characterized as “the process of reflecting on and directing one’s own thinking” (National Research Council, 2001 p. 78). In order to do so, authors of the book How Learning Works recommend building the cycle into your pedagogy where students: assess the demands of tasks, evaluate their own knowledge and skills, plan their approach, monitor their progress, and adjust their strategies as needed. Providing students with such opportunities not only teaches students how to learn, but provides them with techniques that can help them monitor their learning process. This will certainly cultivate skills which can be used in your course and beyond.

Indeed teaching students how to fish may take a little bit more time than giving them a fish. However, if this age old saying is true, we understand that teaching them how to fish will leave them far better prepared for the next course – or the next 20 years – than they would be otherwise.

References & Resources

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. w., DiPietro, M. Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven Research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Choi, C. Q. (2007, February 8). Smart strategy: Think of the brain as a muscle. [Web log post]. Retrieved from:

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

King, M. C. (2005). Developmental academic advising. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web.

National Research Council. (2001). Science, evidence, and inference in education: Report of a work-shop. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Skiff, D. (2009, June 24). What is self-directed learning? [Web log post]. Retrieved from

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