Effective Learning Strategies

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Much of our discussion thus far has focused on knowledge of and beliefs about thinking and learning. But metacognition also involves controlling thinking and learning to some degree. Thanks, in part, to maturational changes in the brain, children and adolescents gradually become more capable of controlling and directing their cognitive processes in their efforts to learn something new (Eigsti et al., 2006; Kuhn & Franklin, 2006). When learners intentionally use a certain approach to learning and remembering something, they are using a learning strategy.

We identified several long-term memory storage processes: rehearsal, meaningful learning, organization, elaboration, and visual imagery. As children grow older, they increasingly discover the benefits of these processes and use them more frequently (see Table 6.3). Children gradually acquire additional strategies as well. For example, consider the simple idea that when you don’t learn something the first time you try, you need to study it again. This is a strategy that 8-year-olds use but 6-year-olds do not (Masur, McIntyre, & Flavell, 1973). With age and experience, children also become more aware of which strategies are effective in different situations (Lovett & Flavell, 1990; Schneider & Lockl, 2002; Short et al., 1993).

Even so, many students of all ages (college students included!) seem relatively uninformed about effective learning strategies (Barnett, 2001; Pintrich & De Groot, 1990; Prawat, 1989; Schommer, 1994a).

As we discovered, rehearsal is usually not the best way to learn and remember new information. Truly effective learning and studying require thinking actively about and elaborating on classroom material. Researchers have identified a number of effective strategies that we’ll examine now.

Identifying Important Information

Because the human memory system isn’t set up to remember everything presented in class or a textbook, students must be selective when studying classroom material. The things they choose to study—whether main ideas and critical pieces of information or, instead, isolated facts and trivial details—inevitably affect their learning and school achievement (Dee-Lucas & Larkin, 1991; Dole et al., 1991; R. E. Reynolds & Shirey, 1988).

Students often have trouble identifying the most important information in a lesson or reading assignment. Many are apt to zero in on superficial characteristics, such as what a teacher writes on the chalkboard or what a textbook author puts in italics or boldface (Dee-Lucas & Larkin, 1991; Dole et al., 1991; Reynolds & Shirey, 1988). In the following excerpts from interviews conducted by students in my own educational psychology classes, Annie (a fifth grader) and Damon (an eighth grader) reveal their naiveté about how best to identify important ideas:

Adult: When you read, how do you know what the important things are?

Annie: Most of my books have words that are written darker than all of the other words. Most of the time the “vocab” words are important. In my science books there are questions on the side of the page. You can tell that stuff is important because it is written twice. (Courtesy of a student who wishes to be anonymous)

Adult: What do you think are the important things to remember when your teacher is talking?

Damon: The beginning sentences of their speech or if there’s a formula or definition. (Courtesy of Jenny Bressler)

As teachers, we can help students learn more effectively by letting them know what we think are the most important ideas to be gained from lectures and reading materials. We can, of course, simply tell them exactly what to study. But we can also get the same message across through more subtle means:

  • Provide a list of objectives for a lesson.
  • Write key concepts and relationships on the chalkboard.
  • Ask questions that focus students’ attention on important ideas.

Students, especially low-achieving ones, are more likely to learn the important points of a lesson when such prompts are provided for them (Kiewra, 1989; R. E. Reynolds & Shirey, 1988; Schraw, Wade, & Kardash, 1993). As students become better able to distinguish important from unimportant information on their own, we can gradually phase out our guidance.

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