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Cognitive Strategy

Excerpted from Chapter 9 of Biehler/Snowman, PSYCHOLOGY APPLIED TO TEACHING, 8/e, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997.


The Nature of Learning Tactics and Strategies
(pp. 334-340)

Types of Tactics

Using Learning Strategies Effectively
(pp. 340-343)

The Components of a Learning Strategy

Research on Learning Strategy Training: Reciprocal Teaching

Suggestions for Teaching in Your Classroom
(pp. 348-351)

Resources for Further Investigation: Learning Tactics and Strategies
(p. 354)


The Nature of Learning Tactics and Strategies

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 another).

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 of information.

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.


Mnemonic Devices

A mnemonic device is a memory-directed tactic that helps a learner transform or organize information to enhance its retrievability.

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 text.

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 high&endash;level information.

Since many teachers favor higher-level test questions, we will focus on self&endash;questioning as an aid to comprehension.

Much of the research on self-questioning addresses two basic questions:

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 has compiled.

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 bad.

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 Strategy

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 relevant tasks.


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 (how).


3. Planning. Once satisfactory answers have been gained from the analysis phase, the strategic learner then formulates a learning plan by hypothesizing something like this:

"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 rereading).

"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 implemented skillfully.

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 mentioned.


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 monitor comprehension.

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 teacher.

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 rule.

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 short-term memory.

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 remember things.

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 skills.

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 rather quickly.

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 mnemonic.


b. Teach students how to formulate comprehension questions.

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 instructional sequence:

1. Discuss the purpose of student-generated questions.

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 constructing questions.

5. Provide corrective feedback.

6. Give students short passages from which to practice.

7. Provide corrective feedback (André & Anderson, 1978/1979).

c. Teach students how to take notes.

Despite the limitations of research on notetaking, mentioned earlier, three suggestions should lead to more effective notetaking.

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 reading assignments).

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 remember.

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 below average.

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 for.


3. Each time you prepare an assignment, think about learning strategies that you and your students might use.

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 and Strategies

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 Department 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., 1997.


For more information on "Cognitive/Learning Strategy" in Orlich et al., TEACHING STRATEGIES, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998, see pages 50-54.

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 Activity."

For more information on "Cognitive Strategy" in Gage/Berliner, EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY, 6/e, 1998, see Chapter 7, "Cognitive Learning."



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