Daneman (1991) noted that learners can absorb new information only in relation to what they already know. For example, an individual who knows nothing about baseball would have trouble understanding a “sacrifice bunt.” However, an individual who understands chess and the strategy of sacrificing a pawn to improve board position could gain an understanding of a sacrifice bunt as a strategy for improving the chances of scoring a run. To make this analogy, the learner engages in a strategy to compare the two situations. A strategy can be thought of as a reasonably efficient and intentional routine that leads to the acquisition and utilization of knowledge (Prawat, 1989). It is possible that two people with the same advanced knowledge of chess but minimal knowledge of baseball might acquire knowledge about a sacrifice bunt differentially because of differences in how they use knowledge.

Important learning and instructional considerations regarding diverse learners’ knowledge and use of strategies are presented in this table:

Learning and Instructional Considerations in Addressing Diverse Learners' Strategy Knowledge and Use

Important Considerations for Diverse Learners Instructional Implications for Diverse Learners
  • Inactive learners- difficulty monitoring learning and adjusting to tasks demands and learning outcomes
  • Difficulty adjusting to structure of intentional learning environments - i.e., being focused and goal directed
  • Uses similar strategies as average achievers, but uses them less efficiently
  • May use different strategies than average achievers to compensate for difficulties with fundamental aspects of problem
  • Difficulty giving up basic, successful strategies for more powerful ones
  • Ensure that necessary skills underlying efficient use of target strategy are firm
  • Provide multiple examples of when to use and not use particular strategy
  • Make each step in new strategy explicit; have learners demonstrate proficiency using each step as well as combining steps to use whole strategy

The use of learning strategies occurs in many different school-related contexts, including solving math verbal problems by creating diagrams of known and unknown quantities; grouping items into discrete categories (e.g., food, clothing, furniture); writing stories by integrating awareness of story grammar, background knowledge, and the intended audience; and studying for a test using a combination of note-taking, rehearsal, and summarization techniques. In general, research has found that diverse learners do not use these and other types of learning strategies as effectively as average achievers (Wong, 1991).

Strategy use in the classroom is critical to educational success. Palincsar and Klenk (1992) provided a framework for understanding the importance of learning strategies. They suggested that learning demands placed on students in the home are fundamentally different than the learning demands placed on students in school. Home experiences provide multiple opportunities for incidental learning to occur. In incidental learning, knowledge is a natural by-product of everyday experiences. Learning environments are unstructured, and it is generally assumed that a child’s natural curiosity is the only condition necessary for important outcomes to occur. In school, however, learning opportunities are organized so that intentional learning occurs. In contrast to incidental learning, intentional learning opportunities are characterized by structure, stated expectations, and time constraints. Learners are encouraged to be purposeful, goal directed, self-regulated, and actively engaged.

According to Palincsar, David, Winn, and Stevens (1991), learners who most effectively respond to the intentional learning demands of school classrooms are those students who use conspicuous learning strategies, actively monitor task demands in relation to their own learning, and adjust their learning strategies on the basis of their own learning outcomes. A similar model is provided by Johnston and Winograd (1985), who referred to students who monitor their own learning outcomes as “active learners.” Active learners use strategic, goal-directed behaviors to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning. Palincsar and Klenk (1992) observed that these active or intentional learning behaviors are problematic for diverse learners across a number of academic domains.

Researchers have attempted to determine whether the use of different strategies or the less efficient use of similar strategies distinguishes diverse learners from average achievers. Although it appears that both instances do occur, the general finding is that diverse learners and average achievers use similar strategies but differ in how efficiently they use them. For example, Griswold, Gelzheiser, and Shepherd (1987) investigated whether diverse learners and average achievers used the same strategies for memorizing the definitions of vocabulary terms. They found that although average achievers learned more unknown words than diverse learners, the groups did not differ in the kind of strategies they used, nor in the time they spent studying the vocabulary words.

Diverse learners also may be reluctant to give up strategies that are useful in the initial stages of learning, but which over time should be replaced with more efficient strategies. For example, a high level of automaticity in basic fact math problems is needed to solve higher-level math problems (Silbert, Carnine, & Stein, 1990). Initially, most students learn to solve basic fact problems by invoking some type of counting strategy. Not only do diverse learners take more time than average achievers to master counting strategies, but they also take longer to master automaticity of basic facts. For example, students may learn initially to solve division problem “50/5” the long way. After some practice, students should not need a paper and pencil to work the problem out, but should know the answer “automatically.” An overreliance on counting strategies to solve basic fact problems prohibits a student from being able to successfully perform more complex operations. Problems at this level tend to persist for diverse learners even in the higher grades (Dixon, 1990).

Kirby and Becker (1988) indicated that lack of automaticity in basic operations and strategy use—either the use of an inefficient strategy or the use of the right strategy at the wrong time—were responsible for the majority of math problems that children experience. As they stated, the results of their studies “do not suggest that children with learning problems in arithmetic have any major structural defect in their information processing systems or that they are qualitatively different from normally achieving children in any enduring sense. Instead, the results are consistent with the interpretation that such children may not be carrying out even simple arithmetic in the correct manner, and that they require extensive practice in the correct strategies” (p. 15).

Similarly in reading, apparent differences in effective strategy use between diverse learners and average achievers may be partly attributable to problems with more fundamental learning strategies. For example, the finding that diverse learners use passage context less efficiently than average achievers to learn the meaning of new vocabulary words may be the result of strategy difficulties in reading comprehension. Both Spear and Sternberg (1986), who examined the literature on the reading problems of diverse learners, and Weisberg (1988), who reviewed the research on reading comprehension, arrived at a similar conclusion: diverse learners do not use reading comprehension strategies effectively. Weisberg noted that diverse learners have difficulty using strategies to integrate their background knowledge with text material to better increase comprehension. Spear and Sternberg indicated there was strong evidence that diverse learners are less efficient at scanning text, more passive in their approach to reading, and less flexible in adjusting their reading strategies to suit varying purposes.

Spear and Sternberg (1986) made a critical point, however, in noting that even the apparent reading comprehension strategy deficiencies of diverse learners may be mediated by a more fundamental problem: generalized low word-reading skills. Part of what is interpreted as inherent strategy problems may be the result of reading failure itself. As Spear and Sternberg suggested, “because of their prolonged difficulty learning to read, these youngsters do not profit sufficiently from the experiences with text through which normal children seem to induce and practice strategies” (p. 9). Thus, in coming full circle, it may be that apparent strategy deficiencies on the part of some diverse learners have root causes in basic skill deficiencies. In reading, lack of strategy use in determining vocabulary meaning from context may stem from deficient reading comprehension strategies. Deficient reading comprehension strategies, in turn, may stem from more fundamental problems with basic word reading skills and the consequences of prolonged reading failure.

It is important to emphasize that differences between diverse learners and average achievers in their use of learning strategies do not stem from organic, “inside-the-head” problems. There seem to be understandable reasons why diverse learners sometimes use different learning strategies than average achievers. They may be focusing on more fundamental aspects of a particular learning task than other students, and thus using different strategies to solve the task. In some cases they may be more reluctant than average achievers to give up strategies they have learned for strategies with which they are unfamiliar but which are necessary to solve complex problems efficiently.