Take a moment to think about a skill you recently learned (e.g., golfing, playing a musical instrument, cooking, speaking another language). Before reading any further, jot down the steps you took to learn that new skill. If you followed the directions, you may have found this task to be difficult, not because you haven’t learned anything new recently, but because the steps you took have become so automatic. For example, you may have started by accessing resources and highlighting key information before practicing. During practice, you probably stopped to check your progress at key intervals and continued to evaluate your progress along the way. You likely practiced several times before you felt confident in performing the new skill proficiently.
Learning strategies are tools for students to perform tasks better, more easily, or quicker.
As teachers, we sometimes assume that students have the strategies necessary to learn new knowledge and skills. Some students who struggle in school, especially students with learning disabilities, struggle due to a lack of effective learning strategies (Reid & Lienemann, 2006). The purpose of this article is to define what learning strategies are, outline when strategy instruction is appropriate, and describe how to provide instruction on learning strategies.
What is a learning strategy?
A learning strategy provides students with steps for “approaching new and difficult tasks, guiding thoughts and actions, completing tasks in a timely and successful manner, and thinking strategically” (Berry, Hall, & Gildroy, 2004, p. 261). You can think of a learning strategy as a tool for a student to use to perform a task better, easier, or quicker (Reid & Lienemann, 2006). Students may access learning strategies to address social, academic, motivational, or executive functioning needs with the overall goal of becoming more “effective, efficient, independent learners” (Berry et al., 2004, p. 273). An important clarification for a learning strategy, in contrast to a teacher’s instructional strategy, is that students fully own a learning strategy and learn to employ the strategy independently across multiple settings. Learning strategies are focused on student behavior and actions, not teacher behavior and actions, but students do require explicit instruction by the teacher during the instructional phase of learning the strategy.
Let’s take a moment to explore a specific learning strategy. Cornell notes (see figure 1) is a strategy for students to use to take organized notes (James Madison University). Cornell notes is considered a learning strategy when a student independently uses the note-taking method. If a teacher delivers notes that are organized as Cornell notes, then it is an instructional method by the teacher. But, if a student is watching a video, reading text, or listening to a lecture and the student independently chooses to take notes using the Cornell structure, then it is a learning strategy. More specifically, it is a learning strategy that the student is using to improve his/her ability to organize and summarize key information. Note-taking strategies do not necessarily need to be as structured as Cornell notes. Think back to when you last took a class, you likely took notes using some type of learning strategy to help you organize the information and identify key points. You may have underlined parts of your notes, made notes in the margins, or drew pictures. Those are all learning strategies for improving note-taking skills.
Cornell notes layout. James Madison University Special Education Program (n.d.). The learning toolbox. Retrieved from http://coe.jmu.edu/learningtoolbox/cornellnotes.html
When Is strategy instruction appropriate?
Learning strategies are most effective when a clear student need is identified and a specific strategy is taught to the student to address his or her need. Strategy instruction is appropriate when you find yourself repeating the same direction for a task and a student is not being successful (Berry et al., 2004). For instance, if you find yourself in math class repeating the steps to solve a problem over and over, strategy instruction on problem solving is appropriate. The goal of the problem solving strategy would be for a student to learn the steps and be able to use the strategy independently until the strategy becomes automatic and eventually internalized as a skill. Strategy instruction can be considered an initial step in building skill acquisition for students.
Let’s explore a specific example of when using a learning strategy with a student would be appropriate. Lory is a seventh grade student who has been identified with a learning disability and struggles to decode text. She receives read-aloud accommodations and uses audio versions of text books. In science, the teacher is exploring a flipped classroom model and is asking students to watch video and read text book excerpts at home. Lory is diligently watching the videos and listening to the text book excerpts at home. When she comes to class, she is not retaining the information she viewed or listened to so she is unsuccessful during class assignments. Lory has a clear area of need: she is watching and listening to information, but has no way to refer back to the information later. For Lory, a learning strategy for taking notes, such as Cornell notes, would be appropriate. If she took notes in an organized way while she was watching or listening to the information, then she could use the notes in class to complete assignments. A learning strategy is appropriate for Lory because she has a specific area of need that has been identified (i.e., organizing information) and a strategy will specifically address her need (i.e., note taking).
How are learning strategies taught to students?
Self-regulated strategy development (SRSD) is a specific model for strategy instruction based on a model by Harris and Graham (Santangelo, Harris, & Graham, 2007). The SRSD model is well-researched and positive effects have been shown for writing and problem-solving strategies for both elementary and secondary general education and special education students (Chalk, Hagan-Burke, & Burke, 2005; Fuchs et al., 2003; Graham, McKeown, Kiuhara, & Harris, 2012; Lushen, 2012). The SRSD model is a comprehensive approach to strategy instruction that is practical for classroom teachers and pairs with self-regulation strategies (Reid & Lienemann, 2006). The model includes clear stages for teachers to follow and includes a focus on students self-regulating their use and proficiency with a strategy.
The SRSD model contains six instructional stages: develop and activate prior knowledge, discuss, model, memorize, support, and independence (Reid & Lienemann, 2006). Figure 2 provides a brief summary of each of the stages (Santangelo et al., 2007). It is imperative in strategy instruction to monitor student progress at each stage of instruction and assess performance outcomes (Berry et al., 2004). The steps of strategy instruction are fluid and each student progresses through the steps at a different rate based on evidence from teacher monitoring (Santangelo et al., 2007). Generalization of strategies during the independence phase can be challenging, especially for students with behavior challenges, and requires explicit instruction and monitoring (Lane et al., 2011). Additionally, positive outcomes require teachers to devote time and energy and to implement with fidelity (Santangelo et al., 2007). Research has found that strategy instruction is most effective when students:
- understand the purpose of the strategy
- learn how, when, and why to use the strategy
- learn different ways to remember the strategy
- develop goals for learning the strategy
- see the strategy modeled several times (Berry et al., 2004)
Let’s continue with our example of Lory. We have decided to teach her Cornell notes as a learning strategy. In stage 1, “develop background knowledge,” we would address any background knowledge that Lory would need to be successful using Cornell notes, in essence, we would set her up for success. We would make sure that she is able to take notes from information presented to her and that she is able to summarize information. In stage 2, “discuss it,” we would discuss with Lory her current performance in science class and how the strategy would help her by organizing the information and providing her with a way to use the information in class on assignments. In stage 3, “model it,” we would model Cornell notes for Lory. We would watch a short video and use the Cornell note-taking method while talking though each step (i.e., a think-aloud). In stage 4, “memorize it,” we would help Lory memorize the steps of the strategy. For the Cornell notes, the steps are: divide the paper into three sections, document the title, write notes, review and clarify, summarize, and study (James Madison University). In stage 5, “support it,” we would provide multiple opportunities for Lory to practice. We would begin by explicitly cueing her on each of the steps and providing feedback at each point. We would then fade our involvement and allow Lory to build independence in using Cornell notes. In stage 6, “independent performance,” we would ask Lory to use the Cornell notes at home. We would look over the notes with her and provide her with feedback. All along the way, we would closely monitor Lory’s progress in learning the strategy and adjust the strategy instruction based on her needs. We may model at several points during the learning stages and the pace at which she achieves independence in the skill will depend fully on her.
Learning strategies provide struggling students, such as Lory, a strategy to employ to perform a task better. Learning strategies are not limited to study skills and can include a variety of strategies aimed to improve student performance in social, academic, motivational, or executive functioning. SRSD provides a practical model for teachers to use in the classroom to teach learning strategies to students. Keep in mind, strategy instruction takes time, commitment, and focus from both the teachers and students for success.
Berry, G., Hall, D., & Gildroy, P. (2004). Teaching learning strategies. In B. K. Lenz & D. D. Deschler (Eds.), Teaching content to all: Evidence-based inclusive practices in middle and secondary schools (pp. 258 – 278). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Chalk, J., Hagan-Burke, S., & Burke, M. (2005). The effects of self-regulated strategy development on the writing process for high school students with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 28, 76-87.
Fuchs, L. S., Fuchs, D., Prentice, K., Burch, M., Hamlett, C. L., Ownen, R., & Schroeter, K. (2003). Enhancing third-grade students’ mathematics problem solving with self-regulated learning strategies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(2), 305-315.
Graham, S., McKeown, D., Kiuhara, S., & Harris, K. R. (2012). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for students in the elementary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 879-896. doi:10.1037/a0029185
James Madison University Special Education Program (n.d.). The learning toolbox. Retrieved November 1, 2013 from http://coe.jmu.edu/learningtoolbox/cornellnotes.html
Lane, K., Harris, K., Graham, S., Driscoll, S., Sandmel, K., Morphy, P., Herbert, M., House, E., & Schatschneider, C. (2011). Self-regulated strategy development at tier 2 for second-grade students with writing and behavioral difficulties: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Research of Educational Effectiveness, 4(4), 322-353. doi:10.1080/19345747.2011.558987
Lushen, K., Kim, O. & Reid, R. (2012). Paraeducator-led strategy instruction for struggling writers. Exceptionality: A Special Education Journal, 95(4), 250-265. doi: 10.1080/09362835.2012.724626
Reid, R. & Lienemann, T. O. (2006). Strategy instruction for students with learning disabilities. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Santangelo, T., Harris, K., & Graham, S. (2007). Self-regulated strategy development: A validated model to support students who struggle with writing. Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal, 5(1), 1-20.