Friday, October 11, 2013

Learning Strategies

In today's information age, learning how to learn is as important as
what to learn.

Schools are very good at teaching students what they should know in order to pass a test. What is frequently missing is teaching them how to engage in a robust learning process that will help them to become lifelong learners.

Research has found that low performing students usually don't understand or know the strategies that lead to effective learning. Teaching students good learning strategies can lead to markedly improved learning outcomes according to a recent article in the journal, Instructional Science.

The authors found that students who know how to use appropriate strategies to understand and remember what they read score significantly higher on tests. As part of their study, the authors administered an assessment to find out how often the students used the following learning strategies:
  • I draw pictures or diagrams to help me understand this subject.
  • I make-up questions that I try to answer about this subject.
  • When I am learning something new in this subject, I think back to what I already know about it.
  • I discuss what I am doing in this subject with others.
  • I practice things over and over until I know them well in this subject.
  • I think about my thinking, to check if I understand the idea in this subject.
  • When I don't understand something in this subject I go back over it again.
  • I make a note of things that I don't understand very well in this subject, so that I can follow them up.
  • When I have finished an activity in this subject I look back to see how well I did.
  • I organize my time to manage my learning in this subject.
  • I make plans for how to do the activities in this subject.
The study found that those students who used fewer of these strategies to think through their subject matter reported having more difficulty in school.

A paper published in Psychology Science in the Public Interest evaluated ten techniques that many students have been taught for improving their learning and rated their effectiveness.

The two techniques that had the highest rating were Practice Testing and Distributed Practice.

Practice Testing is one of the most powerful ways to reinforce learning. Multiple choice testing is effective, but practice tests that require more detailed answers are most effective. And, practice testing where students create the questions themselves rates very high. Using flashcards is a great way to practice testing, as is using a system such as the Cornell note-taking system.

Distributed Practice spreads learning over a period of time. Research has found an interesting correlation between how much you study a subject over time and how long you will remember it. Combining distributed practice with practice testing is a powerful learning combination.

The next two learning techniques that garnered a Moderate Rating were: Elaborative Interrogation and Self-explanation.
Elaborative Interrogation involves concentrating on "why" questions rather than "what" questions and creating questions for yourself as you are working through a task. An example might be to ask yourself, after reading through a text, "why is this true or not true," "why does x=y?" and use your answers to make your notes.

Self-explanation has to do with explaining and recording how a problem is solved as the problem is being worked through. This can be rather time consuming, but has been found to be moderately effective in learning new material.

Although the following were rated very low in utility, there are times that they can be effective. These were Summarization, Highlighting, Keyword Mnemonic, Imagery use for text learning and rereading.

The point is, content and the ability to feed it back on a test is important, but it frequently results in short-term success. If we want our students to retain information and develop into life-long learners, we must provide them with the tools to do so.

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