Learning strategies refer to a range of strategies that can be implemented to improve learning. Examples include using memory cards, spaced repetition, practice tests, strategic highlighting, and reciprocal questioning.
Although there are numerous learning strategies available for students to try, none of them should be considered “the best.” Each one can be applied to a given learning situation and some methods may work better for some students than others.
In practice, students should use multiple learning strategies when studying a subject. Over time, students will discover which ones work best for them.
Learning Strategy Examples
- Spaced Studying – many students try to learn all of the material the night before the exam. It is far better to study sections of the material over several weeks.
- Dual Coding – instead of just reading text, it is better to input information through more than one modality. So, in addition to reading, also use visuals such as graphs to help understand information. Videos and listening to audio explanations of material are also extremely helpful.
- Acronyms –Memorizing lists in the form of an acronym is a very effective way of taking a large amount of information and condensing into just one “chunk” of data. An example is ROYBGIV to remember the colors of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, blue, green, indigo, violet.
- Tactile Learning – being able to touch and feel an object that is connected to a concept works very well for some students, especially younger ones.
- Reciprocal Questioning – this involves students working in pairs; one acts as the teacher and asks the other student questions about the topic, reading assignment, or class lesson.
- Strategic Pauses – teachers can help students consolidate information during lectures by pausing every 10-15 minutes and letting students reflect upon the material or go back through their notes.
- Reading Buddies – this is a cooperative learning strategy good for younger learners where pairs of students read the same passage together. They can help each with pronunciation and understanding the definition of specific words.
- Outlining – after taking notes during a lecture, it is a good idea to help organize your understanding by creating an outline of the material. This can help you see how concepts are related and may also point-out concepts that you missed.
- Highlighting – using a highlighter to emphasize key points in a text is one of the oldest learning strategies ever created. The problem is that most students highlight way too much text. Two or three-word phrases and a few key terms in a paragraph are more than enough.
- Practice Testing – taking a practice test or responding to the reading comprehension questions at the end of a chapter improves memory and helps students identify areas they need to study again.
- Cognitive tools – Students use technology to help stimulate learning, such as by using computer games or computational software. See a full explanation on our cognitive tools article.
- Think-pair-share – Students individually brainstorm a topic, then share their idea with a peer and discuss, then the pair share their ideas with the whole class.
- Role playing – Students can role play a scenario in order to mock being ‘in the moment’ – for example, they could role play being the teacher, being a scientist, or being an engineer.
- Gamification – Gamification refers to implementing game-based incentives into a learning scenario. For example, students can ‘level up’, use a token economy, or receive awards for reaching checkpoints.
- Active learning – Active learning refers to the process of learning by doing – such as conducting tests, doing a project, or inquiry-based learning. This helps contextualize and consolidate knowledge (see also: advantages of active learning).
- Brainstorming – Brainstorming can help a learner push through a blockage by generating ideas (in a process called divergent thinking) that could subsequently lead to lightbulb moments
- Concept mapping – Concept mapping helps learners to identify connections between ideas, which adds context and deepens the learning experience.
- Thinking aloud – Thinking aloud can help push through brain blocks because the act of speaking and writing is a cognitive sorting process.
Learning Strategy Case Studies
1. Rotating Chair Discussion
This is a learning strategy that encourages students to actively listen to each other and participate in a class discussion. It improves student engagement, communication skills, and enhances understanding of complex material.
One student starts by acting as the class “chair.” They define the key issue for discussion and express their opinion. Then other students that want to express their views raise their hand and wait (patiently and quietly) to be called upon by the chair.
When the chair has selected the next speaker, that person stands and summarizes the previous chair’s remarks. Then they express their own.
It’s important that everyone in the class listens completely to each speaker without interrupting. Only the acting chair can select the next speaker. No one can be selected twice until all those that want to participate have had a turn.
In addition to the benefits mentioned above, this learning strategy also teaches students about civility and respecting the views of others even though they disagree with us.
2. The Pre-reading Skim
Most students open their book to the first page of the chapter and immediately start reading. This might seem like a good idea because it gets right to the task at hand, but there are better ways to approach a new chapter.
For example, before jumping right in, take a few moments and browse the chapter first. Read the subheadings, take a look at the photos and graphs, and read the captions. If there is an index of key words or concepts at the end of the chapter, take a few moments to skim those as well.
The pre-reading skim gets your mind ready for the upcoming information. It activates your memory and creates a context for all that data that will be bombarding your mind later.
Although it might seem like this takes too long, it will actually save time later because you will be able to remember information more easily and efficiently. You won’t have to spend as much time trying to rehearse information because it was already stored more strongly in the beginning.
3. Mind Mapping
This technique involves creating a diagram that visually represents the information being studied. It is a relatively simple learning strategy, but has numerous benefits.
The procedure is simple. First, draw a circle in the center of a sheet of paper that represents the central concept you want to study. Then, start brainstorming all of the other concepts you can think of that are related. Put each one in their own circle around the central circle. Don’t worry about organization or relevance yet.
Next, go around the map and list any facts associated with each concept. Keep these statements short and simple.
Draw lines connecting the concepts that are related. If you want, make the lines thicker to represent concepts that are more strongly connected.
The benefits of mind mapping are numerous. Not only does it improve memory of concepts and related facts, but also helps organize the information and understand how concepts are related.
TPS is a cooperative learning strategy that stimulates cognitive processing and interest. It was first described by Frank Lyman (1982) as a way to increase student motivation.
The steps are relatively simple. First, the teacher explains the activity and then presents an open-ended question. Then, students think about the question on their own, quietly, and jot down their thoughts.
Next, the students form pairs and share their notes with each other. After each student has taken a turn, they summarize the key points and then share with the class. They can identify points of agreement or disagreement, or areas of shared confusion.
The class discussion can then help students hone in on key concepts and clarify any misunderstandings.
5. The After-Class One-Minute Paper
Reviewing class notes is one way to help strengthen memory of a lot of material that has just be presented in a short period of time. However, it is still a relatively passive exercise. To make this strategy more active and engaging, the one-minute paper makes for an effective alternative.
At the end of class, write a summary of that day’s material. Allow yourself one minute to complete the summary. Try not to go over this time limit because it will force you to be succinct and focused on the highlights.
Writing is a much more active learning process than reading notes. It forces you to recall information and then reproduce it in the form of a written sentence.
This will call attention to concepts that you don’t understand thoroughly. It’s also a great way to improve writing skills and train yourself to be concise.
There are a lot of very effective learning strategies for students to choose from. Some of them have been around since the beginning of the printable text.
Other strategies are a little more recent and have been created by experts in cognitive science and education.
The fundamental premise behind most of these strategies is that learning that involves deep cognitive processing is more effective than learning that is passive. Therefore, the more the strategy requires active engagement in the material, the better.
Mind maps, one-minute papers, and taking practice tests are just a few examples of ways to consolidate information and identify areas that require more study time.
Amer A. A. (1994). The effect of knowledge-map and underlining training on the reading comprehension of scientific texts. English for Specific Purposes, 13, 35–45.
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Bretzing B. H., Kulhavy R. W. (1979). Notetaking and depth of processing. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 4, 145–153.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266
Lyman, F. (1981). The responsive classroom discussion. In A. S. Anderson (Ed.), Mainstreaming digest (pp. 109-113). College Park, MD: University of Maryland College of Education.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.