Goal Setting | Motivation |
Cognitive Strategy | Cooperative Learning | Assessment
Excerpted from Chapter 9 of Biehler/Snowman, PSYCHOLOGY
APPLIED TO TEACHING, 8/e, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997.
The Nature of Learning Tactics
Types of Tactics
Using Learning Strategies
The Components of a Learning
Research on Learning Strategy Training: Reciprocal Teaching
Suggestions for Teaching in
Resources for Further
Investigation: Learning Tactics
The Nature of Learning Tactics
A learning strategy is a general plan that a
learner formulates for achieving a somewhat distant academic
goal (like getting an A on your next exam). Like all
strategies, it specifies what will be done to achieve the
goal, where it will be done, and when it will be done.
A learning tactic is a specific technique (like a
memory aid or a form of notetaking) that a learner uses to
accomplish an immediate objective (such as to understand the
concepts in a textbook chapter and how they relate to one
As you can see, tactics have an integral connection to
strategies. They are the learning tools that move you closer
to your goal. Thus, they have to be chosen so as to be
consistent with the goals of a strategy.
If you had to recall verbatim the preamble to the U.S.
Constitution, for example, would you use a learning tactic
that would help you understand the gist of each stanza or
one that would allow for accurate and complete recall? It is
surprising how often students fail to consider this point.
Because understanding the different types and roles of
tactics will help you better understand the process of
strategy formulation, we will discuss tactics first.
Types of Tactics
Most learning tactics can be placed in one of two
categories based on each tactic's intended primary purpose.
One category, called memory-directed tactics, contains
techniques that help produce accurate storage and retrieval
The second category, called comprehension-directed
tactics, contains techniques that aid in understanding the
meaning of ideas and their interrelationships (Levin, 1982).
Within each category there are specific tactics from
which one can choose. Because of space limitations, we
cannot discuss them all. Instead, we have chosen to briefly
discuss a few that are either very popular with students or
have been shown to be reasonably effective.
The first two, rehearsal and mnemonic devices, are
memory-directed tactics. Both can take several forms and are
used by students of almost every age.
The last two, notetaking and self-questioning, are
comprehension-directed tactics and are used frequently by
students from the upper elementary grades through college.
The simplest form of rehearsal, rote rehearsal, is one of
the earliest tactics to appear during childhood and is used
by most everyone on occasion. It is not a particularly
effective tactic for long-term storage and recall because it
does not produce distinct encoding or good retrieval cues
(although, as discussed earlier, it is a useful tactic for
purposes of short-term memory).
According to research reviewed by Kail (1990), most five-
and six-year-olds do not rehearse at all. Seven-year-olds
sometimes use the simplest form of rehearsal. By eight years
of age, instead of rehearsing single pieces of information
one at a time, youngsters start to rehearse several items
together as a set.
A slightly more advanced version, called cumulative
rehearsal, involves rehearsing a small set of items for
several repetitions, dropping the item at the top of the
list and adding a new one, giving the set several
repetitions, dropping the item at the head of the set and
adding a new one, rehearsing the set, and so on.
By early adolescence rehearsal reflects the learner's
growing awareness of the organizational properties of
information. When given a list of randomly arranged words
from familiar categories, thirteen-year-olds will group
items by category to form rehearsal sets.
A mnemonic device is a memory-directed tactic that
helps a learner transform or organize information to enhance
Such devices can be used to learn and remember individual
items of information (a name, a fact, a date), sets of
information (a list of names, a list of vocabulary
definitions, a sequence of events), and ideas expressed in
These devices range from simple, easy-to-learn techniques
to somewhat complex systems that require a fair amount of
practice. Since they incorporate visual and verbal forms of
elaborative encoding, their effectiveness is due to the same
factors that make imagery and category clustering
successful--organization and meaningfulness.
Since students are expected to demonstrate much of what
they know by answering written test questions,
self-questioning can be a valuable learning tactic.
The key to using questions profitably is to recognize
that different types of questions make different cognitive
demands. Some questions require little more than verbatim
recall or recognition of simple facts and details.
If an exam is to stress factual recall, then it may be
helpful for a student to generate such questions while
studying. Other questions, however, assess comprehension,
application, or synthesis of main ideas or other
Since many teachers favor higher-level test questions, we
will focus on self&endash;questioning as an aid to
Much of the research on self-questioning addresses two
1. Can students as young as those in fourth
grade be trained to write comprehension questions about the
content of a reading passage?
2. And does writing such questions lead to better
comprehension of the passage in comparison to students who
do not write questions?
The answer to both questions is yes if certain conditions
are present. Research on teaching students how to generate
questions as they read (see, for example, Wong, 1985;
Mevarech & Susak, 1993) suggests that the following
conditions play a major role in self-questioning's
effectiveness as a comprehension-directed learning tactic:
1. The amount of prior knowledge the
questioner has about the topic of the passage.
2. The amount of metacognitive knowledge the questioner
3. The clarity of instructions.
4. The instructional format.
5. The amount of practice allowed the student.
6. The length of each practice session.
As a learning tactic, notetaking comes with good news and
The good news is that notetaking can benefit a student in
two ways. First, the process of taking notes while listening
to a lecture or reading a text leads to better retention and
comprehension of the noted information than just listening
or reading does.
Second, the process of reviewing notes produces
additional chances to recall and comprehend the noted
material. The bad news is that we know very little at the
present time about the specific conditions that make
notetaking an effective tactic.
Using Learning Strategies Effectively
The Components of a Learning
As noted, a learning strategy is a plan for accomplishing
a learning goal. It consists of six components:
metacognition, analysis, planning, implementation of the
plan, monitoring of progress, and modification. To give you
a better idea of how to formulate a learning strategy of
your own, here is a detailed description of each of these
components (Snowman, 1986, 1987).
1. Metacognition. In the absence of some minimal
awareness of how we think and how our thought processes
affect our academic performance, a strategic approach to
learning is simply not possible.
We need to know, at the very least, that effective
learning requires an analysis of the learning situation,
formulation of a learning plan, skillful implementation of
appropriate tactics, periodic monitoring of our progress,
and modification of things that go wrong.
In addition, we need to know why each of these steps is
necessary, when each step should be carried out, and how
well prepared we are to perform each step.
Without this knowledge, students who are taught one or
more of the learning tactics mentioned earlier do not keep
up their use for very long, nor do they apply the tactics to
2. Analysis. Any workable plan must be based on
relevant information. By thinking about the type of task
that one must confront, the type of material that one has to
learn, the personal characteristics that one possesses, and
the way in which one's competence will be tested, the
strategic learner can generate this information by playing
the role of an investigative journalist and asking questions
that pertain to what, when, where, why, who, and how.
In this way the learner can identify important aspects of
the material to be learned (what, when, where), understand
the nature of the test that will be given (why), recognize
relevant personal learner characteristics (who), and
identify potentially useful learning activities or tactics
3. Planning. Once satisfactory answers have been
gained from the analysis phase, the strategic learner then
formulates a learning plan by hypothesizing something like
"I know something about the material to be learned (I
have to read and comprehend five chapters of my music
appreciation text within the next three weeks), the nature
of the criterion (I will have to compare and contrast the
musical structure of symphonies that were written by
Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms), my strengths and
weaknesses as a learner (I am good at tasks that involve the
identification of similarities and differences, but I have
difficulty concentrating for long periods of time), and the
nature of various learning activities (skimming is a good
way to get a general sense of the structure of a chapter;
mnemonic devices make memorizing important details easier
and more reliable; notetaking and self-questioning are more
effective ways to enhance comprehension than simple
"Based on this knowledge, I should divide each chapter
into several smaller units that will take no longer than
thirty minutes to read, take notes as I read, answer
self-generated compare-and-contrast questions, use the loci
mnemonic to memorize details, and repeat this sequence
several times over the course of each week."
4. Implementation. of the plan. Once the learner
has formulated a plan, each of its elements must be
A careful analysis and a well-conceived plan will not
work if tactics are carried out badly. Of course, a poorly
executed plan may not be entirely attributable to a
learner's tactical skill deficiencies.
Part of the problem may be a general lack of knowledge
about what conditions make for effective use of tactics (as
is the case with notetaking).
5. Monitoring of progress. Once the learning
process is under way, the strategic learner assesses how
well the chosen tactics are working.
Possible monitoring techniques include writing out a
summary, giving an oral presentation, working practice
problems, and answering questions.
6. Modification. If the monitoring assessment is
positive, the learner may decide that no changes are needed.
If, however, attempts to memorize or understand the
learning material seem to be producing unsatisfactory
results, the learner will need to reevaluate and modify the
analysis. This, in turn, will cause changes in both the plan
and the implementation.
There are two points we would like to emphasize about the
nature of a learning strategy.
The first is that learning conditions constantly change.
Subject matters have different types of information and
structures, teachers use different instructional methods and
have different styles, exams differ in the kinds of demands
they make, and the interests, motives, and capabilities of
students change over time.
Accordingly, strategies must be formulated or constructed
anew as one moves from task to task rather than selected
from a bank of previously formulated strategies. The true
strategist, in other words, is very mentally active.
The second point is that the concept of a learning
strategy is obviously complex and requires a certain level
of intellectual maturity.
Thus, you may be tempted to conclude that, although you
could do it, learning to be strategic is beyond the reach of
most elementary and high school students. Research evidence
suggests otherwise, however. A study of high school students
in Scotland, for example, found that some students are
sensitive to contextual differences among school tasks and
vary their approach to studying accordingly (Selmes, 1987).
Furthermore, as we are about to show, research in the
United States suggests that elementary grade youngsters can
be trained to use many of the strategy components just
Research on Learning Strategy Training: Reciprocal Teaching
A study of strategy training aimed at improving reading
comprehension is the reciprocal teaching (RT) program of
Annemarie Palincsar and Ann Brown (1984).
As the title of this program indicates, students learn
certain comprehension skills by demonstrating them to each
other. Palincsar and Brown trained a small group of seventh
graders whose reading comprehension scores were at least two
years below grade level to use the techniques of
summarizing, self-questioning, clarifying, and predicting to
improve their reading comprehension. These four methods were
chosen because they can be used by students to improve and
During the early training sessions, the teacher explained
and demonstrated the four methods while reading various
passages. The students were then given gradually increasing
responsibility for demonstrating these techniques to their
peers, with the teacher supplying prompts and corrective
feedback as needed.
Eventually, each student was expected to offer a good
summary of a passage, pose questions about important ideas,
clarify ambiguous words or phrases, and predict upcoming
events, all to be done with little or no intervention by the
Palincsar and Brown found that the RT program produced
two general beneficial effects.
First, the quality of students' summaries, questions,
clarifications, and predictions improved. Early in the
program students produced overly detailed summaries and many
unclear questions. But in later sessions concise summaries
and questions dealing explicitly with main ideas were the
For example, questions on main ideas increased from 54
percent to 70 percent. In addition, the questions were
increasingly stated in paraphrase form rather than as
verbatim statements from the passage.
Second, RT-trained students scored as well as a group of
average readers on tests of comprehension (about 75 percent
correct for both groups) and much better than a group taught
how to locate information that might show up in a test
question (75 percent correct versus 45 percent correct).
Most impressively, these levels of performance held up
for at least eight weeks after the study ended (no measures
were taken after that point) and generalized to tests of
social studies and science (20 percent correct prior to
training versus 60 percent correct after training).
Subsequent research on the effectiveness of RT has
continued to produce positive findings across a broad age
spectrum (fourth grade through college). On the average, RT
students have scored at the 62nd percentile on standardized
reading comprehension tests (compared to the 50th percentile
for the average control student) and at the 81st percentile
rank on reading comprehension tests that were created by the
experimenters (Rosenshine & Meister, 1994).
Suggestions for Teaching in Your Classroom
1. Demonstrate a variety of learning
tactics, and allow students to practice them.
a. Teach students how to use various forms of
rehearsal and mnemonic devices.
At least two reasons recommend the teaching of rehearsal.
One is that maintenance rehearsal is a useful tactic for
keeping a relatively small amount of information active in
The other is that maintenance rehearsal is one of a few
tactics that young children can learn to use. If you do
decide to teach rehearsal, we have two suggestions:
First, remind young children that rehearsal is something
that learners consciously decide to do when they want to
Second, remind students to rehearse no more than seven
items (or chunks) at a time.
Upper elementary grade students (fourth, fifth, and sixth
graders) can be taught advanced forms of maintenance
rehearsal, such as cumulative rehearsal, and forms of
elaborative rehearsal, such as rehearsing sets of items that
form homogeneous categories. As with younger students,
provide several opportunities each week to practice these
As you prepare class presentations or encounter bits of
information that students seem to have difficulty learning,
ask yourself if a mnemonic device would be useful. You might
write up a list of the devices discussed earlier and refer
to it often.
Part of the value of mnemonic devices is that they make
learning easier. They are also fun to make up and use.
Moreover, rhymes, acronyms, and acrostics can be constructed
You might consider setting aside about thirty minutes two
or three times a week to teach mnemonics. First, explain how
rhyme, acronym, and acrostic mnemonics work, and then
provide examples of each. For younger children use short,
simple rhymes like "Columbus crossed the ocean blue in
fourteen hundred ninety-two." For older students, the rhymes
can be longer and more complex.
Acrostics can be used to remember particularly difficult
spelling words. The word arithmetic can be spelled by
taking the first letter from each word of the following
sentence: a rat in the house may eat the ice cream.
Once students understand how the mnemonic is supposed to
work, have them construct mnemonics to learn various facts
and concepts. You might offer a prize for the most ingenious
b. Teach students how to formulate comprehension
We concluded earlier that self-questioning could be an
effective comprehension tactic if students were trained to
write good comprehension questions and given opportunities
to practice the technique. We suggest you try the following
1. Discuss the purpose of student-generated
2. Point out the differences between
knowledge&endash;level questions and comprehension-level
questions. An excellent discussion of this distinction can
be found in the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives,
Handbook I: Cognitive Domain (Bloom et al., 1956).
3. Provide students with a sample paragraph and several
comprehension questions. Again, good examples of
comprehension questions and guidelines for writing your own
can be found in the Taxonomy.
4. Hand out paragraphs from which students can practice
5. Provide corrective feedback.
6. Give students short passages from which to practice.
7. Provide corrective feedback (André &
c. Teach students how to take notes.
Despite the limitations of research on notetaking,
mentioned earlier, three suggestions should lead to more
First, provide students with clear, detailed objectives
for every reading assignment. The objectives should indicate
what parts of the assignment to focus on and how that
material should be processed (whether memorized verbatim,
reorganized and paraphrased, or integrated with earlier
Second, inform students that notetaking is an effective
comprehension tactic when used appropriately. Think, for
example, about a reading passage that is long and for which
test items will demand analysis and synthesis of broad
concepts (as in "Compare and contrast the economic, social,
and political causes of World War I with those of World War
II"). Tell students to concentrate on identifying main ideas
and supporting details, paraphrase this information, and
record similarities and differences.
Third, provide students with practice and corrective
feedback in answering questions that are similar to those on
the criterion test.
2. Encourage students to think about the various
conditions that affect how they learn and
The very youngest students (through third grade) should
be told periodically that such cognitive behaviors as
describing, recalling, guessing, and understanding mean
different things, produce different results, and vary in how
well they fit a task's demands.
For older elementary school and middle school students,
explain the learning process more simply, focusing on the
circumstances in which different learning tactics are likely
to be useful. Then, have students keep a diary or log in
which they note when they use learning tactics, which ones,
and with what success.
Look for cases where good performance corresponds to
frequent reported use of tactics, and positively reinforce
those individuals. Encourage greater use of tactics among
students whose performance and reported use of them are
While this same technique can be used with high school
and college students, they should also be made aware of the
other elements that make up strategic learning.
Discuss the meaning of and necessity for analyzing a
learning task, developing a learning plan, using appropriate
tactics, monitoring the effectiveness of the plan, and
implementing whatever corrective measures might be called
3. Each time you prepare an assignment, think about
learning strategies that you and your students might
As noted in our earlier discussion of age trends in
metacognition, virtually all elementary school students and
many high school students will not be able to devise and use
their own coordinated set of learning strategies.
Accordingly, you should devise such strategies for them,
explain how the strategies work, and urge them to use these
techniques on their own.
With high school students, you might consider giving a
how to study lecture at the beginning of a report period to
provide your students with general information about
learning strategies. Even if you do give such an
orientation, however, it would still be wise to give
specific instructions as each assignment is made.
In devising learning strategies, follow the procedure
that was described earlier in this chapter: analyze, plan,
implement, monitor, modify. When you analyze, take into
account not only the material to be learned and the nature
of the tests you will give but also the cognitive
characteristics of the learners.
Resources for Further Investigation: Learning Tactics
One of the most popular (and useful) memory improvement
books available is The Memory Book (1974), by Harry
Lorayne and Jerry Lucas. They explain why and how you should
think up ridiculous associations, offer suggestions for
using substitute words, provide techniques for learning
foreign and English vocabulary, and describe ways to
remember names and faces.
Bernice Bragstad and Sharyn Stumpf (offer practical
advice and instructional materials for teachers of study
skills in A Guidebook for Teaching Study Skills and
Motivation (2d ed., 1987).
Meredith Gall, Joyce Gall, Dennis Jacobsen, and Terry
Bullock outline why it is important to teach students study
skills, summarize underlying theories of information
processing and motivation, and describe how a school or
district can implement a study skills program in Tools
for Learning: A Guide to Teaching Study Skills (1990).
In Part C of Teaching Reading, Writing, and Study
Strategies (3d ed., 1983), H. Alan Robinson describes
patterns of writing (text structures) and associated
comprehension tactics for four major content areas: science,
social studies, English, and mathematics.
A complete list of projects on cognitive skills
development approved by the Department of Education for
national dissemination for elementary through high school
educators is found on-line at the
of Education. The site is maintained by the National
Diffusion Network and is equivalent to its "Educational
Programs That Work," twentieth edition print catalogue.
This was excerpted from Chapter 9 of Biehler/Snowman,
PSYCHOLOGY APPLIED TO TEACHING, 8/e, Houghton Mifflin Co.,
For more information on
"Cognitive/Learning Strategy" in Orlich et al., TEACHING
STRATEGIES, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998, see pages
For more information on
"Cognitive/Learning Strategy" in the Grabes' INTEGRATING
TECHNOLOGY FOR MEANINGFUL LEARNING, Houghton Mifflin Co.,
2/e 1998, see pages 33-50 on "Cognitive Models of Learning"
and the "Fundamential Properties of Mental
For more information on "Cognitive
Strategy" in Gage/Berliner, EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY, 6/e,
1998, see Chapter 7, "Cognitive Learning."