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.

Retrieving Relevant Prior Knowledge

As noted, students can engage in meaningful learning only when they have previous knowledge to which they can relate new information and when they are aware of the potential relationship. Although we can certainly remind students of prior knowledge that’s relevant to a topic they’re studying, we must also encourage them to retrieve relevant knowledge on their own as they study. One approach is to model this strategy for students. For example, we might read aloud a portion of a textbook, stopping occasionally to tie an idea in the text to something previously studied in class or to something in our own personal experience. We can then encourage students to do likewise, giving suggestions and guiding their efforts as they proceed (Spires & Donley, 1998). Especially when working with students in the elementary grades, we might also want to provide specific questions that remind students to reflect on their existing knowledge and beliefs as they read and study:

  • What do you already know about your topic?
  • What do you hope to learn about your topic?
  • Do you think what you learn by reading your books will change what you already know about your topic? (H. Thompson & Carr, 1995, p. 9)

With time and practice, students should eventually get in the habit of retrieving relevant prior knowledge with little or no assistance from us (Spires & Donley, 1998).

Taking Notes

By the time students reach the upper elementary or middle school grades, note-taking skills begin to play a role in their classroom achievement. In general, students who take more notes learn and remember classroom subject matter better (Kiewra, 1989). However, the quality of the notes is equally important. Useful notes typically reflect the main ideas of a lesson or reading assignment (A. L. Brown, Campione, & Day, 1981; Kiewra, 1985; Peverly, Brobst, Graham, & Shaw, 2003). Good notes seem to be especially important for students who have little prior knowledge about the subject matter they are studying (Shrager & Mayer, 1989).

Despite the advantages of note taking, many young adolescents take few or no class notes unless specifically instructed to take them (recall the infrequent note taking in Ms. Gaunt’s ninth-grade math class). And the notes they do take differ considerably in quality, as the following exercise reveals.

Especially when students are first learning how to take notes in class, we should scaffold their efforts by giving them an idea about which things are most important to include (Pressley, Yokoi, van Meter, Van Etten, & Freebern, 1997; Yokoi, 1997). One approach is to provide a specific structure to use, much as Barbara Dee does in her unit on Greek mythology. The two students whose notes are depicted here don’t follow the structure completely (one neglects to address the setting and the conflict, and neither addresses the solution), but they at least have some guidance about the things they should be thinking about as they listen in class. Another strategy to consider, especially if students are novice note takers, is to occasionally check their notebooks for accuracy and appropriate emphasis and then give constructive feedback.

Organizing Information

Students learn more effectively when they engage in activities that help them organize what they’re studying. One useful strategy is outlining the material, which may be especially helpful for low-achieving students (L. Baker, 1989; M. A. McDaniel & Einstein, 1989; Wade, 1992). Another approach is to make a concept map, a diagram that depicts the concepts of a unit and their interrelationships (Mintzes, Wandersee, & Novak, 1997; Novak, 1998).

Students derive numerous benefits from constructing their own concept maps for classroom material. By focusing on how key concepts relate to one another, students organize material better. They are also more likely to notice how new concepts are related to concepts they already know; thus, they are more likely to learn the material meaningfully. Furthermore, when students construct a concept map from verbal material (e.g., from a lecture or a textbook), they can encode the material visually as well as verbally. And the very process of concept mapping may promote a more sophisticated perspective of what learning is (Holley & Dansereau, 1984; Mintzes et al., 1997; Novak, 1998). Specifically, students may begin to realize that learning is not just a process of absorbing information but instead involves actively making connections among ideas. (Such awareness is an example of an epistemological belief, a concept we’ll consider shortly.)

Not only do concept maps help students, but they can also help teachers. When we ourselves develop a concept map for a lesson, the organizational structure of the material becomes clearer, giving us a better idea about how to sequence the presentation of ideas. And when we examine the concept maps our students have constructed, their understanding of a topic becomes readily apparent, as do their misconceptions about it (Novak, 1998; Novak & Gowin, 1984; Novak & Musonda, 1991). 

Intentionally Elaborating on Information

As a strategy that children intentionally use to help them learn and make sense of new information, elaboration appears relatively late in development (usually around puberty) and gradually increases throughout the teenage years (Schneider & Pressley, 1989). Yet even in the high school grades, only high-achieving students regularly elaborate as they read and study (Barnett, 2001; Pressley, 1982; E. Wood, Motz, & Willoughby, 1997). Low-achieving high school students often depend on relatively “thoughtless,” superficial strategies (such as rehearsal) in their attempts to remember what they are studying.

There are a variety of things we can do to teach students—even those in the elementary grades—to elaborate on classroom topics. For one thing, when we model retrieval of relevant prior knowledge, we can model elaboration as well. For example, we can identify our own examples of a new concept, consider the implications of a new principle, and so on. We can also give students questions such as the following to consider as they listen to a lecture or read a textbook:

  • Explain why . . .
  • How would you use . . . to . . . ?
  • What is a new example of . . . ?
  • What do you think would happen if . . . ?
  • What is the difference between . . . and . . . ? (A. King, 1992, p. 309)

Another approach is to have students work in pairs or small groups to formulate and answer their own elaborative questions. Different researchers call such group questioning either elaborative interrogation or guided peer questioning (Kahl & Woloshyn, 1994; A. King, 1994, 1999; Rosenshine, Meister, & Chapman, 1996; E. Wood et al., 1999).

Creating Summaries

Another effective learning strategy is summarizing the material being studied (Hidi & Anderson, 1986; A. King, 1992; Spivey, 1997; Wade-Stein & Kintsch, 2004). Creating a good summary is a fairly complex process, however. At a minimum it includes distinguishing between important and unimportant information, synthesizing details into more general ideas, and identifying important relationships among the ideas. It’s not surprising, then, that even many high school students have difficulty developing good summaries (V. Anderson & Hidi, 1988/1989).

Probably the best way to help students acquire this strategy is to ask them on a regular basis to summarize what they hear and read. For example, we might occasionally give homework assignments asking students to write a summary of a textbook chapter. Or we might ask them to work in cooperative groups to develop a brief oral presentation that condenses information they’ve learned about a topic. At first we should restrict summarizing assignments to short, simple, and well-organized passages involving material with which students are familiar; we can assign more challenging material as students become more proficient summarizers (V. Anderson & Hidi, 1988/1989). Computer software is also available to scaffold the summarizing process (e.g., Wade-Stein & Kintsch, 2004).

Monitoring Comprehension

One especially powerful learning strategy is comprehension monitoring, a process of periodically checking oneself for recall and understanding. How well do you monitor your comprehension?

Successful learners continually monitor their comprehension both while they study something and at some point after they’ve studied it (Dunlosky, Rawson, & McDonald, 2002; Hacker, Bol, Horgan, & Rakow, 2000; Weaver & Kelemen, 1997). Furthermore, when they realize they don’t understand, they take steps to correct the situation, perhaps by rereading a section of a textbook or asking a question in class. In contrast, low achievers rarely check themselves or take appropriate action when they don’t comprehend something. Poor readers, for instance, seldom reread paragraphs they haven’t completely understood the first time around (L. Baker & Brown, 1984; Haller, Child, & Walberg, 1988; Stone, 2000).

As you read a textbook, when is the information in working memory? in long-term memory? With your answers in mind, explain why students should monitor their comprehension both as they read and also at a later time.

Many children and adolescents engage in little, if any, comprehension monitoring (Dole et al., 1991; Markman, 1979; J. W. Thomas, 1993a). When they don’t monitor their learning and comprehension, they don’t know what they know and what they don’t know; consequently, they may think they have mastered something when they really haven’t. Although this illusion of knowing is especially common in young children, it is seen in learners at all levels, even college students (L. Baker, 1989; Hacker, 1998; Schneider & Lockl, 2002). When paper-and-pencil exams become common at upper grade levels, an illusion of knowing can lead students to overestimate how well they will perform on these assessments (e.g., Hacker et al., 2000). My own students occasionally come to me expressing frustration with low test scores. “I knew the material so well!” they tell me. But when we sit down and begin to talk about the exam material, it usually becomes clear that in fact they have only a vague understanding of some ideas and an incorrect understanding of others.

Comprehension monitoring doesn’t have to be a solitary activity, of course. If students work in small study groups, they can easily test one another on material they are studying and may detect gaps or misconceptions in one another’s understandings (Dunning et al., 2004; Hacker, 1998). Yet to be truly effective learners, students must ultimately learn how to test themselves as well. One effective strategy is self-explanation, in which students frequently stop to explain to themselves what they have learned (deLeeuw & Chi, 2003). Another, similar approach is self-questioning, in which students periodically stop to ask themselves questions—essentially internalizing the mutual question-asking process they have learned from small-group study sessions (Dunning et al., 2004; Wong, 1985). Their self-questions should, of course, include not only simple, fact-based questions but also the elaborative questions described earlier.

Some of the strategies just described, such as taking notes and making outlines, are behaviors we can actually see. Others, such as retrieving relevant prior knowledge and monitoring comprehension, are internal mental processes that we often cannot see. It is probably the latter set of strategies—internal mental processes—that ultimately affect students’ learning (Kardash & Amlund, 1991). As we help students develop learning and study strategies, then, we must remember that behavioral strategies (e.g., taking notes) will be useful only to the extent that they promote more effective cognitive processing.