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Cognitive Strategies

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Updated on Dec 23, 2009

A cognitive strategy is a mental process or procedure for accomplishing a particular cognitive goal. For example, if students' goals are to write good essays, their cognitive strategies might include brainstorming and completing an outline. The cognitive strategies that students use influence how they will perform in school, as well as what they will accomplish outside of school. Researchers have found that effective learners and thinkers use more effective strategies for reading, writing, problem solving, and reasoning than ineffective learners and thinkers.

SOME IMPORTANT DISTINCTIONS

Cognitive strategies can be general or specific (Pressley & Woloshyn, 1995). General cognitive strategies are strategies that can be applied across many different disciplines and situations (such as summarization or setting goals for what to accomplish), whereas specific cognitive strategies tend to be more narrow strategies that are specified toward a particular kind of task (such as drawing a picture to help one see how to tackle a physics problem). Specific strategies tend to be more powerful but have a more restricted range of use. Effective learners use both general and specific strategies.

Strategies have been distinguished from skills. Although skills are similar to strategies, they are different in that they are carried out automatically, whereas strategies usually require individuals to think about what strategy they are using (Alexander, Graham, & Harris, 1998). Effective learners develop the ability to use strategies automatically while also reflecting upon those strategies when necessary. People who are able to reflect upon their own cognition and cognitive strategies are said to have metacognitive awareness.

One factor that determines whether students use a strategy is whether students know what the strategy is and how to use it. Strategy use can be influenced both by knowledge of what the strategy is and how to use it, and by belief in the effectiveness of the strategy (Chinn, 2006). One reason why students may not use an effective strategy is that they do not know about it. For example, students who study simply by reading a textbook chapter a second time may not know that more effective strategies include actively trying to summarize the text and trying to explain challenging ideas to themselves. A second reason why students do not use strategies is that they may not believe the strategy is effective or worthwhile. The student who is encouraged to summarize the chapter may not believe it will really improve learning, or the student may agree that it will improve learning but that the amount of additional learning is not worth the time that summarizing takes.

STRATEGY USE AND THEORIES OF LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT

The role of effective strategies in learning and thinking is emphasized by most theories of learning and development. Information processing theorists treat strategies as procedures that act on information in working memory in ways that improve memory and understanding through better interconnections with existing knowledge. For example, elaborating information is an effective strategy because it integrates new information with other information retrieved from long-term memory.

Constructivists emphasize the role of strategies as learners construct new knowledge. Strategies such as identifying problems with one's own understanding can help learners construct new understandings. Students who learn effectively will have a wide range of effective strategies for constructing knowledge at their disposal.

Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) developed a sociocul-tural theory of development that emphasizes the role of groups in enabling learners to master strategies. Learners internalize strategies after first encountering them in group conversations. For instance, students may internalize the strategy of critiquing their own writing after participating in collaborative discussions in which peers critique each other's writing.

Social cognitive theorists emphasize the role of efficient strategy use in becoming a self-regulated learner. Self-regulated learners are those who are adept at controlling their own learning processes without outside supervision or help. Self-regulated learners are able to set goals for learning (e.g., study for an exam), select strategies to achieve these goals (e.g., outline each chapter and make sure each main idea is understood), monitor whether they are achieving these goals (ask themselves questions about whether everything makes sense), and make adaptations if goals are not being achieved (e.g., going back and rereading some hard-to-understand sections).

IMPORTANCE OF COGNITIVE STRATEGIES IN LEARNING AND THINKING

There are several lines of research that support the importance of cognitive strategies in learning and thinking. One prominent line of research compares experts with novices or proficient students with less proficient students (e.g., Chan, Burtis, Scardamalia, & Bereiter, 1992; Chi, Bassok, Lewis, Reimann, & Glaser, 1989). Researchers using these methods have found significant differences in strategy use between more and less proficient learners, reasoners, and problem solvers.

A second line of research experimentally examines the effects of training students to learn by employing a strategy or set of strategies (e.g., Graham, MacArthur, & Schwartz, 1995). Many such studies have demonstrated that students who learn the new strategies outperform those who did not learn the strategies.

A third line of research comes from long-term classroom experiments or quasi-experiments (Brown, Pressley, Van Meter, & Schuder, 1996; Guthrie et al., 2004). These studies usually last many months, often a whole school year. They contrast a traditional school curriculum that does not focus much on strategy instruction with curricula that teach students many different cognitive strategies. These studies have shown that with carefully designed instruction, students' performance on measures of learning, reasoning, and/or problem solving improves.

Finally, researchers have compared high-performing schools with low-performing schools to see if they differ in their emphasis on strategy instruction (e.g., Langer, 2001). A number of studies have found that higher-performing schools do in fact focus more on helping students learn effective cognitive strategies than lower-performing schools do.

Much of the research on cognitive strategies has sought to identify particular strategies that are effective on different kinds of tasks. The remainder of this entry will examine strategies that have proven to be effective in comprehension, writing, problem solving, and reasoning, and discuss several effective domain-general strategies for general self-regulation.

COMPREHENSION STRATEGIES

Comprehension strategies are strategies that help students understand and remember material such as texts and lectures. Most of the research on comprehension strategies has focused on learning from reading texts. Five strategies that have been found to be useful for enhancing comprehension are monitoring, using text structure, summarizing, elaborating, and explaining.

One widely studied comprehension strategy is monitoring (Markman, 1979). When students monitor their understanding, they review as they read in order to check that they comprehend what they are reading or learning. This skill develops with age as students' reading proficiency increases. Many unsuccessful learners mistakenly believe that they understand ideas that they do not in fact understanding; they have not mastered the strategy of accurately monitoring their understanding.

The strategy of using text structure involves utilizing the organization of a text in order to enhance comprehension (Meyer & Rice, 1984). The structure of a text refers to how ideas are organized. For example, textbooks are often organized by main concepts with several paragraphs of supporting details and peripheral concepts. Editorials are organized as a claim followed by arguments intended to persuade people that the claim is true. Compare-and-contrast essays are organized around a series of points and counterpoints. Authors use cues such as topic sentences, headings, transition words, and underlined or bold-faced font, to highlight their particular text structure as they write. These cues are used by proficient readers to help them organize the ideas they are learning. Ineffective learners make little or no use of text structure cues.

Three other important comprehension strategies are summarization, elaboration, and explaining. When students summarize, they choose the most important concepts from the text and express them in their own words. Summarization is not an easy task for students (Dole, Duffy, Roehler, & Pearson, 1991). Poor readers often generate summaries with too much detail and too little focus on key points. In addition to summarization, effective learners elaborate, which means connecting new information to information that they already know (Gagné, Weidemann, Bell, & Anders, 1984). Elaboration is different from mere paraphrasing. When students paraphrase, they simply reinterpret, in their own words, the text that they have read. In contrast, when students elaborate, they actively link the new information to old information. A student who contrasts a text about democracy to information learned earlier about dictatorships has elaborated, as has the student who connects the text about democracy to the student's own personal experiences serving on student council. Finally, when students explain ideas, they ask themselves “why” questions and then attempt to answer these questions. For instance, as students read a book on U.S. pioneers, they could try to explain why the pioneers risked so much to travel west. Studies have shown that generating explanations is a highly effective means of learning (Chi, de Leeuw, Chiu, & LaVancher, 1994).

PROBLEM-SOLVING STRATEGIES

Problems occur when a person has a goal but does not immediately see how to achieve that goal. The person must then apply problem-solving strategies to try to achieve the goal.

The mathematician George Polya (1887–1985) devised four effective problem-solving strategies: understanding the problem, developing a plan for a solution, carrying out the plan, and looking back to see what can be learned. In addition to looking back to see what can be learned, learners can check to make sure that the solution makes sense. If a math problem asks how many 40-seat buses are needed to take 120 students on a field trip, the answer 4,800 does not make sense. Ineffective problem solvers often generate solutions such as this that show little or no reflection on what the problem means.

In addition to these strategies, there are other strategies that researchers have found to be highly effective for problem solving. These strategies include representing the problem, identifying sub goals, and noticing commonalities and differences.

When representing the problem, problem solvers develop a clear picture of the problem. Sometimes this means literally making a drawing or a diagram. Sometimes it means creating a mental vision of the problem situation. Useful problem representations (a) are complete, (b) embed initial inferences that can be drawn from the problem information, and (c) exclude irrelevant information.

Real-world problems tend to be complex; they cannot be solved with a simple one-step solution. As a consequence, problem-solvers must set sub goals that must be achieved on the way to achieving the overall goal (Thevenot & Oakhill, 2006). Effective problem solvers learn to establish sub goals that effectively break down complex problems into manageable steps.

Examining and reflecting on contrasting problems can be an effective way to learn how to solve future problems better. By noticing how a difference in problem conditions affects the best solution (e.g., how a change in the wording of a mathematical word problem changes the solution method), problem solvers gain knowledge that can help them solve problems more efficiently in the future.

WRITING STRATEGIES

Writing can be viewed as an ill-structured problem—a problem with numerous potential solutions but no specifically defined criteria for deciding what counts as a good solution. Therefore, strategies that are useful in writing will be strategies that are more likely to be useful for other ill-structured tasks (such as designing a house or developing a campaign plan) than for well-structured problems with agreed-upon solution procedures.

In a 1986 study John Hayes and Linda Flower developed an influential model of writing that has guided thinking about effective writing strategies. Hayes and Flower identified three basic writing processes: planning, sentence generation, and revising. Planning and revising have been the subject of the most research.

When students plan, they think about what they are going to write about and organize these ideas before they start writing (Kellogg, 1988). Effective planners both generate ideas and organize those ideas. Effective writers typically generate more ideas than they need; this gives them a reservoir of ideas from which to choose. Organization involves ordering ideas and selecting which to include and which to exclude. Planning can fail either because the writers generate too few ideas or because the writers do a poor job of combining the ideas into a well-integrated fabric. Effective writers spend substantially more time planning than less successful writers. They often start by working at a more general level before fleshing out their ideas with many details. Effective writers are more likely than ineffective writers to make major changes to their plans as they are planning, or even later when they begin writing.

Effective student writers tend use a planning strategy called knowledge transformation, by which they take their existing ideas and fashion them anew into new ideas and new structures of thought (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987). Ineffective writers (and younger writers, as well) use a strategy called knowledge telling. Knowledge tellers do little or no planning, and they certainly do not fashion their current ideas into new structures. Instead, they write down ideas on paper exactly in the order that they think of them.

Once a draft is composed, effective writers revise their work (Hayes & Flower, 1986). Good writers spend more time revising than poor writers do. But they also differ from poor writers in the quality of their revisions. Poor writers may simply lightly proofread their work, if they do anything at all. More successful writers often make major revisions, perhaps choosing to make major changes to the structure of the paper or rewriting a paragraph to make it more understandable for the reader. Good writers also take the audience into consideration throughout the writing process.

REASONING STRATEGIES

Reasoning strategies are strategies that help people decide what they believe to be true or correct and what they believe to be false or incorrect. There are several strategies that differentiate more successful reasoners from less successful reasoners: generating arguments and counterarguments, fair-mindedness in evaluating evidence, considering control or comparison groups, sourcing, and seeking corroboration.

Generating counter-arguments refers to the ability to come up with arguments that oppose one's own argument. Most adolescents and adults can generate two to three times more arguments than counter-arguments; even the number of arguments generated for one's own claim tends to be fairly low. Researchers have argued that an important reasoning strategy is therefore to learn to consider alternative positions and arguments more carefully (Kuhn, 1991).

Ineffective reasoners tend to be biased when evaluating evidence. For instance, they will discount studies that oppose their position by pointing out many flaws in the study, but when they read a similarly flawed study that supports their position, they seem not to notice the flaws at all (Chinn & Brewer, 2001).

Effective reasoners tend to consider relevant comparison groups (Stanovich, 1999). If shown data that students who attended a test prep center increased their test scores by 20% in 2 months, they will not jump to the conclusion that the center improves test scores. They will notice the lack of a comparison group and will wonder whether students who did not attend the center also improved their test scores over 2 months.

A fourth reasoning strategy used by effective reason-ers is sourcing (considering the source of the information when evaluating it). Students reading historical documents typically fail to consider—or even pay attention to—who wrote the document (Wineburg, 1991). Thus, they will not notice important issues such as whether the source might have been biased. This is an especially important concern because of the Internet; many sources on the Internet are not credible, yet many poor reasoners do not recognize or consider the credibility of the source.

Finally, effective reasoners employ the strategy of cor-roboration, which refers to consulting different sources of information to try to verify what is learned from one source with supporting information from another source (Wine-burg, 1991). For example, a historian would be more likely to believe a former president's account of how a legislative battle was won if this account is corroborated in important details by documentary evidence.

GENERAL SELF-REGULATION STRATEGIES

General self-regulation strategies are strategies that can be used in almost any learning, problem solving, or reasoning situation. Researchers have stressed the importance of a number of general self-regulation strategies (Zimmerman, 1998). Prominent among these are goal setting, self-monitoring and self-evaluation, time management, and executive control.

When students set goals, they are recognizing and identifying what exactly they want to accomplish. Students can set long-term, intermediate-term, or short-term goals. Effective learners will use all three of these types of goals, but pay particular attention to short-term goals as steps toward longer-term goals. Research also supports the value of focusing on process goals (such as the goal of using the summarization strategy effectively) rather than just focusing on outcome goals (such as the goal of getting an A on the test) (Zimmerman & Kitsantas, 1999).

Monitoring has been discussed earlier as a comprehension strategy. As a general self-regulation strategy, self-monitoring, together with self-evaluation, refers more generally to the observing and taking note of the activities that one is engaged in. As students self-monitor, they are evaluating their progress toward achieving their goals. Self-monitoring includes deciding what standards one will use to judge one's own progress (e.g., deciding how to judge whether good progress has been made while conducting a science experiment). It also requires students to determine whether they have attained the goals that they have set. If they find that they are not making good progress toward their goals, they will need to develop a revised plan that will lead to better progress.

Effective time management requires students to organize their time effectively in order to accomplish goals. Proficient learners tend to manage their time more effectively than their less proficient peers.

Lastly, effective outcomes demand that the learner be skilled at controlling and managing different strategies and using them when appropriate. When learners can manage strategies effectively in this way, they have achieved executive control over the strategies.

EDUCATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

This entry has briefly reviewed some of the main cognitive strategies that enhance comprehension, problem solving, writing, and reasoning. It has also examined several of the many general-purpose self-regulation strategies that can be used on any kind of learning or thinking task.

Because less successful learners frequently use less effective strategies, teachers can help students learn by identifying strategies that students are using (assessing strategy use) and, if necessary, helping them learn more effective strategies (strategy instruction).

One method for assessing strategy use is to administer formal or informal self-report questionnaires to determine what strategies students themselves say they are using. One type of self-report questionnaire used by teachers is a cognitive strategy questionnaire (such as the widely used Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ), developed by Paul Pintrich and colleagues), which asks students about their strategy use. A disadvantage of self-report measures is that students might not answer truthfully, they might misunderstand the questions, or they might lack the metacognitive awareness needed to answer accurately. An advantage of self-report measures is that they can be administered quickly to many students.

The second general way that teachers can assess strategy use is by listening to the strategies students are using as they speak in class discussions and group work or what they write in their assignments. The teacher can also listen to students' strategy use when working with students individually. Teachers can encourage their students to “make their thinking public” by thinking out loud as they are reading a text, solving a problem, writing, or reasoning. By listening to what students say in these contexts, teachers can gain an understanding of their students' strategy use. This will enable teachers to set instructional goals to help students learn more effective strategies that will help them become better learners and thinkers.

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