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ARTICLE#:1 -----------------------------------------------------------------

TITLE: Teaching Students to Be Efficient Learners.

AUTHOR: Protheroe, Nancy.;
SOURCE TITLE: Principal (Reston, Va.)
SOURCE INFO: v. 82 no2 (Nov./Dec. 2002) p. 48-51
ISSN: 0271-6062
UPDATE CODE: 20021122
DOCUMENT TYPE: Feature article
Cognitive strategy instruction.
Elementary schools, Teaching methods.

The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with
permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.
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An important difference between a successful student and one who is struggling is the
way each goes about learning. Some students approach the learning process efficiently.
Having a wide range of learning strategies available to them and knowing how and when
to apply them, they intuitively, continuously, and almost unconsciously monitor what
they are doing as they work toward mastery of content.
Other students, however, approach learning with few of these valuable tools. Bonds et al.
(1992) provide a familiar description: “There are students who appear to be performing
assigned reading tasks but have difficulty with retention. Such students maintain that they
were reading, yet, when asked to describe what was going on in their minds when they
were reading, they cannot.”
Research suggests that effective learning strategies can greatly improve student
achievement. Since these strategies can be taught, schoolwide efforts to provide strategy
instruction can have a significant impact on student learning.


According to Pressley et al. (1989), effective learners continuously analyze tasks in order
to identify a strategy that might help monitor their performance. If dissatisfied with their
progress, they either try harder or apply a different strategy.
Students who are effective users of learning strategies also typically have a better sense
of their own strengths and needs. For example, a student may be aware that he has trouble
paying attention in a particular class and employ a strategy there that more actively
engages him in listening (Gall et al. 1990).
In contrast, “The less self-directed children are less likely to do the task and think about it
at the same time...If they do initiate talk to others about the task, it is more likely to be in
the form of a question about how to do the task or a spontaneous comment about their
own lack of ability” (Biemiller &amp; Meichenbaum 1992).
The student who has repeatedly experienced failure in school due to a lack of learning
tools also becomes less persistent in approaching school tasks. Often, he or she is told to
simply try harder--and either repeats the unsuccessful approach or chooses not to try
Biemiller & Meichenbaum (1992), in their research on children's approaches to learning,
agree that “one source of the differences between the highest- and lowest-achieving
children is in the degree to which they become self-regulators of their own learning.
High-achieving students engage in a number of helpful strategic skills, including goal
setting, planning, self-interrogating, self-monitoring (checking answers), asking for help,
using aids, and using memory strategies” (1992).


A crucial aspect of the teacher's role is to help students develop the ability to plan and
evaluate their own learning processes, thus becoming independent learners. They must
ask themselves: “What can I do at each step to teach my students how to facilitate their
own learning?” (Rafoth et al. 1993).
Alderman (1990) highlights the importance of helping students who fail in a learning task
to identify when an ineffective strategy, rather than a lack of ability or effort, led to the
failure. If the strategy was the problem, the next step should be to provide assistance in
correctly applying the strategy or to teach the use of a more effective one. One of the
“principal goals of strategy training [is to alter] students' beliefs about themselves by
teaching them that their failures can be attributed to the lack of effective strategies rather
than to lack of ability or to laziness” (Jones et al. 1987).
The literature is virtually unanimous in declaring that learning skills should be taught in
the context of subject-area instruction, where students can have meaningful opportunities
to practice them. Deshler &amp; Schumaker (1986) discuss the importance of teachers
first studying the curriculum content to decide on strategies that might be immediately
helpful or appropriate. In their view, appropriate instruction should:
* Make students aware of other contexts to which a particular strategy could be
* Provide them with repeated opportunities to practice strategies in a variety of situations;
* Be assessed periodically to ensure that students are using a strategy as part of their
regular learning repertoire.


There is also agreement on many of the specific elements that characterize effective
strategy instruction. Rafoth et al. (1993) have developed a mnemonic--MIRRORS--to
help teachers remember some critical components:
M - Model the strategy and explain how to carry it out;
I - Inform the students about when and how to use it;
R - Remind them to use the strategy;
R - Repeat the strategy through practice;
O - Outline the strategy's usefulness via constant feedback;
R - Reassess the student's performance as a result of using the strategy; and
S - Stress strategy generalization.
Teachers should also:
* Gradually move from a high level of teacher support to independent learning by
* Teach content before introducing a strategy, so that students are not trying to learn two
new things simultaneously;
* Provide opportunities for practice;
* Encourage students to demonstrate that they can transfer the strategy to other tasks;
* Demonstrate to students when use of a strategy has resulted in success;
* Encourage students to develop their own strategies; and
* Provide opportunities for students to talk about and share strategies.
(Biemiller & Meichenbaum 1992; Deshler & Schumaker 1993; Ellis et al. 1991; Jones et
al. 1987; Pressley et al. 1989).


One successful method for teaching strategic thinking is to have the teacher consistently
“think out loud” and encourage similar activity by the students. The teacher can then
detect and address inappropriate use of strategies by some students, identify the type of
class or individual instruction needed, and use the strategies of effective learners as
models for others. Astington (1998) suggests that “even kindergartners can be asked,
'How do you know that? Did you just think of that, or did you remember it?” Defabo
(1990) identify reciprocal teaching as a useful technique in successful study skills
acquisition because it “incorporates training in metacognitive awareness in students; is
embedded in the teaching of specific content; teaches specific metacognitive strategies
that are highly generalizable while providing practice for students; and transfers
responsibility for learning to students, encouraging independent learning.”
Experienced teachers realize that many learning strategies are developmental in nature.
For example, children in the early grades often use rote repetition (e.g., writing spelling
words five times each) as a memory tool, while a fifth-grade student may mentally group
words according to similarities in order to make them easier to remember (Rafoth et al.


By taking a schoolwide approach to strategy instruction, principals can establish scope
and sequence for different subject areas and grade levels. Teachers would then be
responsible for instructing students in the use of specific skills in each subject area, and
encouraging them to practice and generalize new learning skills in other classes as well.
Teachers need support in their efforts to learn about and incorporate strategy training in
their subject-area instruction. A schoolwide approach provides both a platform for
appropriate professional development and a forum in which teachers can share
experiences and learn from each other.
Effective use of learning strategies can enhance a child's ability to learn and these
strategies can effectively be taught as part of content-area instruction. Embedding
instruction about learning strategies in content-area teaching takes knowledge and
practice on the part of teachers--but it can be done. In addition to helping all students
direct their efforts more effectively toward learning in school, providing them with
strategy skills can better prepare them for lifelong, independent learning.

Nancy Protheroe is Director of Special Research Projects for the Educational Research
Service (ERS). Her e-mail address is
ERS is a nonprofit research organization founded by NAESP and six other associations of
school administration. For additional information about ERS and its publications, visit

Alderman, M. Kay. “Motivation for At-Risk Students.” Educational Leadership
(September 1990): 27-30.
Astington, Janet Wilde. “Theory on Mind Goes to School.” Educational Leadership
(November 1998): 46-48.<BR>
Biemiller, Andrew; and Meichenbaum, Donald. “The Nature and Nurture of the Self-
Directed Learner.” Educational Leadership (October 1992): 75-80.
Bonds, Charles W.; Bonds, Lella Gant; and Peach, Walter. “Metacognition: Developing
Independence in Learning.” The Clearning House (September/October 1992): 56-59.
Deshler, Donald D.; and Schumaker, Jean B. “Learning Strategies: An Instructional
Alternative for Low-Achieving Adolescents.” Exceptional Children Vol. 52 (1986): 583-
Deshler, Donald D., and Schumaker, Jean B. “Strategy Mastery by At-Risk Students: Not
a Simple Matter.” The Elementary School Journal (November 1993): 153-167.<BR>
Ellis, Edwin S. et al. “An Instructional Model for Teaching Learning Strategies.” Focus
on Exceptional Children Vol. 23, No. 6 (February 1991).
Gall, M. D. et al. Tools for Learning. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and
Curriculum Development, 1990.
Jones, Beau Fly et al. Strategic Teaching and Learning: Cognitive Instruction in the
Content Areas. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum
Development in cooperation with North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1987.
Pressley, Michael et al. “The Challenges of Classroom Strategy Instruction.” The
Elementary School Journal (January 1989): 301-342.
Rafoth, Mary Ann; and DeFabo, Leonard. Study Skills. Washington, D.C.: National
Education Association, 1990.
Rafoth, Mary Ann; Leal, Linda; and DeFabo, Leonard. Strategies for Learning and
Remembering. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, 1993.

School Improvement in Maryland addresses metacognition and offers metacognitive
strategies on its Web site.
The National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities describes
promising intervention strategies for students with learning disabilities and provides a
useful bibliography.
“Learning Strategy Instruction in the English Classroom,” by Anna Uhl Charnot, is
available from The Language Teacher Online. "http://www.jalt-"
“Using Memory-Enhancing Strategies to Learn Multiplication Facts,” by Donna K. Wood
and Alan R. Frank, is available from the Teaching Exceptional Children Web site.