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Tutor Training: Module 5: Approaches to Learning

Module 5.1. - Memory


Learning is defined as acquiring knowledge and skills through experience, study, or direct instruction [1]. When we learn something, we commit it to long-term memory. Long-term memory can be divided into declarative and non-declarative memory. 


Non-declarative memory consists of the memories that we are not consciously aware of – procedural memories (such as motor skills) and priming (enhanced identification of objects or words). Declarative memory consists of the memories that we are consciously aware of – episodic memories (personally experienced events) and semantic memory (general facts and knowledge). Typically the type of memory students are most often concerned with is semantic memory because they are consciously learning facts and knowledge [2]. To commit information to long-term semantic memory, we must:

  • Pay attention to the information
  • Practice recalling the information
    • Relearning information is faster than learning something the first time
    • Frequently memorizing/recalling an item, strengthens the memory trace
    • Learning information in small chunks over a longer period of time is more effective for long-term retention than learning a large chunk in a short time. In other words, cramming is detrimental to long-term retention.
  • Organize the information (in a manner that is personally logical)
    • This may be hierarchies, flow charts, linking concepts into stories or with visual images, or associating with already known information
  • Consolidate the memory
    • This is the brain’s physical change to the neurons within the first few hours after learning (synaptic consolidation) and over a period of weeks to years (system consolidation)
    • Repetition, rehearsal, and sleep are important for improving consolidation

When we encode a memory (change it to a form our brain can store and retrieve), it is broken down into components – acoustic, visual, emotional, scent, texture, and so on, and when we retrieve a memory, it is constructed out of these components. With each new memory, we create associations between the new information, old information, and these components, and those associations we create provide cues when we want to access a memory; for example, if we activate one association, the others are partially activated. 

There are two ways to access a memory:

  1. Recognition – determining if the item is familiar, or which item is most familiar from a set of items. This is the type of memory we use for multiple-choice, matching, and true/false questions.
  2. Recall – reconstructing information from a cue. This is the type of memory we use for fill-in-the-blank, short answer, and essay questions.

With both recognition and recall, we activate the neural network associated with the cue provided for the item. Creating multiple associations for the information you want to remember aids memory. Associations and cues can be visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, and so on. Each person tends to have a favourite combination; for example, maybe you remember best by visually creating a scene in your head while you read your textbook; maybe your roommate prefers to read her notes out loud and discuss the key points with you; or maybe you’ve watched someone make subtle movements while writing a test. Remember, though, that your learning preference(s) are not set in stone; you learn more effectively when you create more types of associations for the new information. For instance, you may retrieve information best when you have written it out, but will remember and process better overall if you incorporate some auditory or visual strategies in addition to the kinesthetic strategies. [2] [3] [4]

Your preferred method of encoding information is probably intuitive to you, and it is likely that tutoring someone with the same preference will be naturally successful. In other cases, the suggestions from the intelligence-based information below will help you to level any differences in understanding between you and your tutee.

One can improve memorization; however, university requires more than simple regurgitation of facts. We need to analyze and create information.

Analysis and creation of information require the full use of our memory system (attention/encoding, working memory, and long-term memory). Consider the processes used for mathematics and essay writing: we must

  • pay attention to the task at hand while keeping the final product in mind
  • take new information into working memory, and compare and associate that information with old information
  • retrieve various items from long-term memory to combine with the new information
  • organize and prioritize all this information, sequence it, and then create our final product.

Luckily for most of us, this process is automatic and unconscious.
*See Module 6: Working with a Diverse Student Population for information on challenges encountered by students with disabilities


[1] Learning. (n.d). In Merriam-Webster online. Retrieved from:
[2] Marche, T. (September-December 2014). Human memory. [PowerPoint slides]. Lecture Notes. University of Saskatchewan. 

[3] CrashCourse. (2014). Remembering and forgetting: Crash course psychology #14. Retrieved from:]

[4] Mastin, L. (2010). The Human Memory. Retrieved from:

Module 5.2. - Multiple Intelligences

Traditionally, when we think of intelligence, we think of IQ and people who are academically smart. However, if we consider intelligence from the same perspective as memory – that is, stored all over our brain in a neural network that can be strengthened or weakened depending on use – then understanding that there are multiple intelligences is intuitive. Gardner (1983) proposed that each of us has a combination of intelligences and that we have a preference for some intelligences more than others. 

The eight intelligences can be mapped out like this:









Your preferences for intelligence will have a great affect on how you understand, process and retain the information presented to you. Understanding your preferences may help you better accommodate your needs as a learner, and when students are familiar with their preferences, you can adapt your session to better suit their needs.

To learn about your preferences, take an online quiz

*Note: these short assessments are for interest only and are likely not fully accurate.

If you perceive that a student might have a strong preference to learn in a particular way, you can try some of the following strategies to make the session more useful:

If students seem to be Kinesthetic/Bodily learners...
  • Use role-playing
  • Give them hands-on experience, if possible i.e. practice rather than talk about the problem
  • Follow their lead and use hand gestures and nonverbal communication to illustrate a point
  • Use interactive technology i.e. get them to look things up on a computer or type something out
If students seem to be Logical/Mathematical learners...
  • Categorize, classify, and organize information in a logical order (e.g., chronological order)
  • Make charts and graphs or construct timelines
  • Provide or encourage students to determine rules and name relevant exceptions to the rule
If students seem to be Verbal/Linguistic learners...
  • Read aloud from textbook
  • Get the student to take notes during the session
  • Use stories or analogies to explain concepts
  • Talk through problems
If students seem to be Naturalistic learners...
  • Move the session nearer a window
  • Use analogies and examples that relate to nature and the environment
  • Help them to understand concepts or solve problems through categorization
If students seem to be Musical learners...
  • Focus on discussing things out loud; suggest reading aloud parts of the text
  • Suggest putting words to rhythms, rhymes or melodies – create a song out of the information that needs to be memorized
  • Hold the session in a quiet spot where the student will not be distracted by noise
  • Suggest avoidance listening to music with lyrics while studying – the lyrics divide your attention
If students seem to be Visual/Spatial learners…
  • Draw or paint a visual image; sketch pictures in the margins
  • Make graphs or charts
  • Use different coloured writing instruments
  • Make concept maps
If students seem to be Interpersonal learners…
  • Suggest they study in groups, so they have people to bounce ideas off of
  • Use discussion as much as possible during the session. Let them talk more than you do
  • Get them to teach back to you what you explained or reviewed
  • Ask students to share their understanding of new material, and explain their interpretation
If students seem to be Intrapersonal learners…
  • Meet in a place with few distractions
  • Connect learning to personal life, suggest journaling
  • Suggest taking self-assessment quizzes and researching ways to improve learning habits

The above information has been modified from “Learning Style and Multiple Intelligences: Identifying Pathways to Success” Presented by Robin Alison Mueller. SESD Learning Series. University of Saskatchewan. March 2008.

Hopefully, these tips will help you to customize the session and make it as productive as possible for the student. Determining a student’s preferences can be as simple as asking them if creating a table together would help, or whether they would like to discuss things first.

For more information on Gardner's theories, you might want to explore the official MI website or read his books:

Gardner, H. Frames of mind. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
Gardner, H. Multiple intelligences: New horizons. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

“Inclusion and the Multiple Intelligences: Creating a Student-Centered Curriculum." The Quarterly. Volume 25, no. 4. National Writing Project.



[5] Multiple Intelligences. 2013 Source: R Fan. 2013. Used with permission from author.

Module 5.3. - Mindsets

Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset

“Researchers Lisa Blackwell of Columbia University along with Kali Tzesniewski and Carol Dweck of Stanford University … found that both morale and grade points took a leap when students understood that intelligence is malleable. Not only did those students who already believed this do better in school, but also when researchers actively taught the idea to a group of students, they performed significantly better than their peers in a control group.” [6] 

Well-known psychologist Carol Dweck developed the idea of mindsets. She posited that there are two ways students approach academic work: with a fixed or a growth mindset. Mindset significantly impacts how a student approaches problems and perceives results. Through multiple studies, Dweck illustrated that a growth mindset can increase motivation and productivity, and is –more than intelligence measured through an IQ test – the strongest determinant in lasting academic success. [7] 

Growth versus Fixed Mindset is different than having a positive or negative attitude.

In fact, we may have fixed mindsets about positive things, such as our amazing dancing ability or facility with math. While on the surface, it seems positive that we make confident statements about our abilities (e.g., "I'm good at math), if we attach our identities to them, we can find it tougher to tolerate having moments where we make mistakes and don't do so well (e.g., at math, or at dance). We may even feel shame.

The following table compares and contrasts both mindsets to better clarify this:

Growth Mindset                  vs.                              Fixed Mindset
Believe intelligences and abilities are malleable and can be developed over time Believe intelligences and abilities are based on ingrained characteristics (predetermined/genetic)
Embrace process and feedback Embrace positive results
Enjoy challenges, knowing they will help them to improve Less likely to attempt challenging projects
Persist in the face of setbacks, knowing that they were learning experiences Sees effort as a bad thing; it means that they’re not naturally good enough to solve the problem
See effort as the way to grow and become more talented Need assurance of success before devoting effort
Learn from criticism, not taking it personally; see it as information that can help  Ignore useful feedback (both positive and negative). Criticism is taken as an insult
Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others. Feel threatened by the success of others. 

People who tend to have a fixed mindset tend to burn out early without meeting their full potential while those who tend to a growth mindset tend to meet their full potential, often exceeding expectations. [8] [9] 

Developing a Growth Mindset

Many people have fixed mindsets, often due to the current education system or well-meaning but unfortunate reassurances such as, “Oh, maybe math just isn’t your thing.” However, studies have shown that you can change your mindset to increase your academic performance. 

Adopting a growth mindset yourself, as a tutor, can influence how you talk to students about their learning.

To adopt a growth mindset, you can:

  • Challenge yourself
    • When you look at effort as a way to grow, it becomes easier for you to accept challenging problems.
    • When you hit a setback, don’t give up. Stay motivated to work through the issue.
  • Find a way to accept a failing mark and learn from the feedback
    • You can still be disappointed with results, but find ways to learn from those results. Keep your focus on improvement, even if you’re taking small steps toward improvement.
    • Focus on making a list of feedback so that you can improve on your next assignment. If you don’t understand the feedback, ask your professors, help centre, or a trusted peer.
  • Change your thinking in small steps
    • Watch how you talk to yourself. Stop using the phrase “I’m no good at …”
    • Change “I can’t do that” to I can’t do that yet”. Dweck emphasizes the power of “yet” because it communicates the possibility of achievement.
    • Focus on repetition. Repetition strengthens the neural pathways in your brain making something easier the more you practice it.
    • Set goals surrounding improvement rather than results.
  • Realize that you likely have a growth mindset in some areas of your life and not in others! 
    • For example, you might have a growth mindset about improving in a videogame or in a sport, and understand that making mistakes in these domains is part of how you learn and grow. Can you apply this thinking to academia? 
  • Watch the following TED Talks
  • Have a few phrases you can use with students you're helping:
    • “I had problems with this, too, and it just took some work, over time, to get it.”

      “You’re having problems with this now, but you’ll get it”

      “Set your goals around improvement rather than results”

      “This just takes a bit of time and practice. Our brains continue to grow and change over time. 

      “While this is difficult right now, with time and practice, this will get easier.”

      “Let’s break this into steps and look at it together”

      “Look at how far you’ve come.”

As you increase your awareness of growth vs. fixed mindsets, you will likely notice the type of self-talk tutees are using (e.g., "I suck at this," or "I've always been a good writer," or  "I'm bad at statistics."). 

If a student is continually using fixed mindset self-talk, it may be beneficial to spend a couple of minutes explaining the concept of a growth mindset. 

A student may repeatedly tell you that she is horrible at math. She always has been and will be lucky to pass her class. Gently explain to her that, “All learning takes time and practice. Studies have shown that our brains continue to change throughout our lives. While math may be difficult for you right now, with time and practice it will get easier. Let’s break this question into steps and look at it together.”

[6] Bernard, S. (2010). Neuroplasticity: Learning physically changes the brain. Edutopia. Retrieved from:
[7] Dweck, C. (2008). Mindset: The New psychology of success – How we can learn to fulfill our potential. New York, NY: Ballantine Books 

[8] Briceno, E. (2012). The Power of belief: Mindset and success. [Video file]. Retrieved from:

[9] Dweck, C. (November, 2014). The Power of believing that you can improve [Video file.] TEDx Talk. Retrieved from: e=en