Effective Learning Strategies (page 3)

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

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.

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