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What are learning and study strategies, and how do you teach them?

Jan 8, 2018 by

Learning strategies are “the purposeful behaviors of a learner that are intended to facilitate the acquisition and processing of information,” as defined by Cecil R. Reynolds, Ph.D. These behaviors allow a student to fully immerse themselves into the content, information, or concept they are learning so that they can fully comprehend it.

Research has shown that students who employ learning strategies when tackling a new or more advanced subject are more successful than those who do not. That’s because these strategies challenge them to have more than a superficial understanding of a concept or bit of information. For example, learning strategies can help students struggling with reading comprehension despite the fact that their fluency is strong.

However, most students won’t develop highly effective learning strategies on their own. Instead, they must be taught strategies to help develop study skills, test taking skills, reading comprehension, and more.

Learning strategies and academic challenges

For elementary and high school students, this list of learning strategies represents skills that can be taught, according to Dr. Reynolds. The skills are not an inborn attribute, nor do they develop in a vacuum. And while it’s true some students figure out their own learning and study strategies, many simply do not – and all can benefit from instruction.

Students also have some common areas of academic liability, such as:

  • Low academic motivation
  • Test anxiety
  • Concentration/Attention difficulties

Even motivation is a skill that can be taught, just as students can be educated to lessen their apprehension about test-taking, according to Dr. Reynolds.

Learning strategies vs. learning styles

To help improve cognition and lessen the struggle some face with learning, Dr. Reynolds suggests the implementation of various learning strategies. His definition of learning strategies are completely separate from so-called “learning styles.”

Learning styles involve teachers realigning their teaching methods to accommodate student preference, whereas a learning strategy is an active process of engagement with the material to be learned.

There are many different learning strategies a student can use, depending on their personal strengths and weaknesses, but they all require a student manipulate and engage with the information presented. By doing this, they can improve both their retention and comprehension.

Some students are able to form their own strategies, with a series of behaviors they use to help themselves learn. Others aren’t as adept at forming their own strategies – but, fortunately, can learn them. However, according to Dr. Reynolds, when trying to teach learning strategies it’s important to remember three things:

  • Consider a learning strategy a sequence of strategic events to determine how an individual reacts to different “events” within the strategy that can indicate how helpful it is for them.
  • Strategies must be flexible and able to be used and adapted based on the level of effectiveness.
  • Strategic behavior can be controlled by the learner.

These three points lead Dr. Reynold’s to conclude that students benefit from using learning strategies when they make a point to actively self-monitor how the strategy works for them (i.e. via periodic checks for comprehension) and to make adjustments to strategies that lack effectiveness.

4 components of direct instruction

Direct instruction is a model of explicit instruction “centered around increased time spent on actual instruction, careful sequencing of material, creating success at each step, and eventually teaching students through feedback to be able to recognize and correct their own learning,” according to Dr. Reynolds.

In some cases, direct instruction can be considered too constraining to work for every student, but Reynolds calls for a more flexible form of direct instruction that consists of levels of demonstration, practice, and evaluation.

He suggests that direct instruction of learning strategies should consist of (at the minimum) the following four components:

  • Direct explanation of what is to be learned (include why it’s important to learn it—justify the experience)
  • Modeling or demonstration of material to be learned
  • Guided practice where the student goes through the material with the support of the teacher
  • Independent application of the concept that receives feedback from the teacher

These components are essential to the main goal of direct instruction: ensuring students have the best chance to successfully learn the strategies that will help them with their academic development. Working through each of these four structured phases provides students with plenty of opportunity to engage with information and comprehend it fully.

How to know what learning strategies to teach

Clinicians and teachers working with students who struggle academically need a way initially to evaluate where that student struggles and what types of learning strategies may be most beneficial. Clinical assessments are great tools for gathering the needed information about a given student.

One clinical assessment vetted by respected sources is the SMALSI assessment, which evaluates poor learning strategies that can affect academic performance and indicates specific learning strategies that would be most beneficial to help improve performance. This assessment can provide academic support, elevate student GPAs, identify weak learning skills, and more. And it’s now available online, making it easier to administer, score, and share results.

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1 Comment

  1. Your points are well taken. I have developed these ideas in my new book from Rowman and Littlefield, “The Learning Skills Cycle. A Way to Rethink Education Reform.” Check it out.

    Also join my neuro-education group in LinkedIn and follow my Improve Learning and Memory blog.

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