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Effective Learning Strategies (page 2)

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

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). 

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