Learning strategies refer to methods that students use to learn. A learning strategy is an individual’s way of organizing and using a particular set of skills in order to learn content or accomplish other tasks more effectively and efficiently in academic and nonacademic settings.
These may range from techniques for improved metacognition to better studying or test-taking strategies. Learning strategies allow educators to teach students how to learn, as opposed to teaching them specific content or skills.
This helps ensure that learners are active participants in the classroom. They are not receiving information from the teacher and passively using this in assessments as they’ll learn how to address all aspects of the learning process. This active use of learning strategies helps learners develop skills, increase confidence, and build motivation in the learning process. Strategy use enhances independent learning and helps learners take responsibility for their own learning.
Weinstein & Mayer indicate that the aim of using strategies is to “affect the learner’s motivational or affective state or the way in which the learner selects, acquires, organizes, or integrates new knowledge.”
Oxford expands on this by explaining, “Strategies are especially important for language learning because they are tools for active, self-directed involvement, which is essential for developing communicative competence.”
Oxford also defines language learning strategies as “the often-conscious steps of behaviors used by language learners to enhance the acquisition, storage, retention, recall, and use of new information.” (p. 4).
Categories of Learning Strategies
As students shift from the skills emphasis of elementary grades to the content emphasis of secondary grades, they face greater demands to read information from textbooks, take notes from lectures, work independently, and express understanding in written compositions and on paper and pencil tests. As they move to higher education, they become life-centered learners as opposed to subject-centered. They increasingly are motivated to devote time and energy to address problems or deal with tasks.
There are a multitude of ways to categorize learning strategies. Strategies can be grouped into classifications based on a focus on memory, metacognitive, affective, cognitive, social, and compensation.
Stern developed a list of ten strategies used by good language learners. Even though these are focused on language learners, they provide a good framework for seeing the complexity of learning strategies:
- Planning strategy – a personal learning style or positive learning strategy;
- Active strategy – an active approach to the learning task;
- Empathic strategy – a tolerant and outgoing approach to the target language and its speakers;
- Formal strategy – technical know-how about how to tackle a language;
- Experimental strategy – a methodical but flexible approach, developing the new language into an ordered system and constantly revising it;
- Semantic strategy – constant searching for meaning;
- Practice strategy – a willingness to practice;
- Communication strategy – willingness to use the language in real communication;
- Monitoring strategy – self-monitoring and critical sensitivity to language use;
- Internalization strategy – developing a second language as a separate reference system and learning to think in it.
Oxford developed a detailed classification model of learning strategies based on the synthesis of the previous work on good language learning strategies. The model is divided into direct strategies and indirect strategies. Once again, these are focused on language learners, they provide a good framework for understanding the cognitive processes involved in learning strategies:
- Direct strategies involve direct learning and require mental processing of the language, which includes:
- memory strategies – help learners store and retrieve new information, such as grouping, creating mental linkages, applying images and sound, reviewing, and employing action,
- cognitive strategies – enable learners to understand and produce new language, such as reasoning, practicing, receiving and sending messages, analyzing and summarizing,
- compensation strategies – allow learners to use the new language for comprehension or production despite limited knowledge, and they are used to make up for “an inadequate repertoire of grammar and, especially, of vocabulary.”
- Indirect strategies support learning indirectly but are powerful to the learning process, which includes:
- metacognitive strategies – help learners to regulate their learning, such as paying attention, planning, self-evaluating and monitoring one’s errors or the learning process,
- affective strategies – help learners to deal with their own emotions, motivation, and attitudes, such as lowering anxiety, self-rewards, self-encouragement,
- social strategies – refers to ways in which learners learn the language through interactions with native speakers of the target language, such as asking questions, cooperating with peers, and improving cultural understanding.
To simplify the selection of learning strategies for classroom teachers, Torgenson provides five recommendations for improving content area instruction:
- Provide explicit instruction and supportive practice in the use of effective comprehension strategies throughout the school day.
- Increase the amount and quality of open, sustained discussion of reading content.
- Set and maintain high standards for text, conversation, questions, and vocabulary.
- Increase students’ motivation and engagement with reading.
- Teach essential content knowledge so that all students master critical concepts.
Kelly B. Cartwright further simplifies this grouping of learning strategies, by outlining how strategies are used by students and can be taught and supported by teachers before reading, during reading, and after reading. Cartwright unpacks these strategies in Executive Skills and Reading Comprehension: A Guide for Educators and this post on Edutopia.
- Before Reading – While preparing for learning, students should make connections to their own prior knowledge, ask questions about the text, make predictions, and preview the text structure.
- During Reading – While processing learning, students should draw on prior knowledge, juggle multiple kinds of information, suppress non-essential information, manage these processes, and summarize.
- After Reading – While consolidating learning, students should reflect on the text, adapt their knowledge structure to assimilate/accommodate what they learned, and draw conclusions about predictions they had for the text.
Keep in mind, how you will use the strategy (before reading – preparing, during reading – processing, after reading – consolidating) will be determined by you. It will depend on how you plan on using it in instruction. Some strategies work better than others for specific purposes, but it depends on your purposes.
How do you teach a learning strategy?
The more strategies a learner uses, the more the learner feels confident, motivated, and self-efficacious. Teachers are encouraged to choose appropriate teaching techniques and learning strategies for students and teach them how to understand learning strategies to enhance levels of self-directed learning.
Learning strategies should be used multiple times with students to help enhance learning through the storage, retention, recall, and application of information about the content.
Schumacher & Deshler have validated an instructional sequence in which students learn each strategy following these teacher-directed steps:
- Pretest – The teacher assesses the current level of student performance on a strategy pretest. Students commit to learning a new strategy.
- Describe – The teacher then describes the characteristics of the strategy and when, where, why, and how the strategy is used. Each strategy has multiple parts that students remember with the aid of a mnemonic.
- Model – The teacher models how to use the strategy by “thinking aloud” as the strategy is applied to content material.
- Verbal practice – The students memorize the strategy steps and other critical use requirements.
- Controlled practice – Teacher enables students to become proficient strategy users with ability level materials. Teachers provide specific feedback on performance.
- Grade-appropriate practice – Students use the strategy with grade-appropriate or increasingly more difficult materials.
- Posttest – The teacher assesses the current level of student performance on a strategy posttest.
- Generalization – Teachers facilitate student generalization of strategy use in other academic and nonacademic settings.
If students need to learn prerequisite skills, such as finding main ideas and details, teachers teach those before teaching the strategy and reinforce student mastery of those skills during strategy instruction. Students typically learn to use a learning strategy in small groups, sometimes in a resource room, through short, intensive lessons over several weeks.