Being Active and Strategic: Impact of Attention, Memory, Sequential Ordering, and Higher Order Cognition

Learning is not a passive process. Effective learning requires a student to interact with the material he is learning, and to be active and strategic in his studying. For each task, in each study situation, being active and strategic requires a student to mobilize his attentional abilities, for example being alert to instructions, linking new information to prior knowledge, working steadily through an assignment, facilitating the use of strategies, and feeling motivated to study.

A student must engage different facets of his memory when learning actively. For example, when studying a chapter in a history text, or applying a problem solving tactic to a math word problem, new information must be quickly interpreted in short term memory, using skills and knowledge recalled from long-term memory.

Often, students can use strategies to help them learn and remember what they are studying. Such strategies include: techniques for organizing information (e.g. making an outline or a concept map), memorizing material (e.g. using a key word or a visual image to trigger information on a test), and managing their learning (e.g. breaking a long chapter down into shorter sections). Finally, students who are active and strategic learners must utilize their higher order thinking skills such as forming and linking concepts, invoking problem-solving strategies, and being able to match strategies and techniques to the assignment at hand.

Here are some strategies to help students become active and strategic in their studying.

Becoming an Active Learner

  • To give students the skills to be active in their studying, provide opportunities for them to be active learners in the classroom. For example:
    • Have students restate learned information in another form, e.g., verbally summarize what was read, draw a semantic map of what was heard, etc. Encourage students to visualize, or create pictures in their minds, during reading and math activities.
    • Encourage students to recognize patterns in content areas. In science, examine laws of nature; in math, identify patterns in word problems; in social situations, examine rules of behavior, etc. Teach students to use self-questioning to trigger patterns (e.g., how is the main idea of this paragraph familiar, how is this math problem like the other one, etc.).
    • Help students create personal meaning by relating new information they learn to information they already know.
    • Intersperse opportunities for students to state in their own words the significant points of a lesson, attributes of key concepts, or steps in a process.  
  • Make use of students’ areas of interest and affinity. Provide opportunities for students to become “experts” in a field and to share that knowledge with the class. Challenge students to find ways to actively involve other students in an affinity-related activity.  
  • Teach students to evaluate the reading difficulty of textbook passages by considering the novelty of information, the degree of focus required, and the appropriate reading rate for comprehension.  
  • Have students write down questions about what they don’t understand during reading, then allow time in class to go over these questions.  
  • Give students practice summarizing and paraphrasing, in both written and oral form.  
  • Teach students the meaning of elaboration, with examples and non-examples. Give students practice elaborating on topics that interest them.  
  • Give students questions and sample tests through which they can assess their own progress.  
  • Create a study buddy system where students check their notes for accuracy with each other before beginning an assignment or studying for a test.  
  • Discuss techniques that your students can use to be more engaged in their studying. Examples of techniques are:
    • Change Topics. Many students can better sustain concentration by regularly changing the subject they are studying every one to two hours, finding that changing content and/or patterns of thinking helps refresh attention.
    • Develop Incentives and Rewards. Encourage students to reward themselves for completing a task. The task might be large or small, for example, staying with a difficult assignment until it is finished.
    • Study Actively. Students’ concentration may wander more easily when they read an assignment straight through. Suggest instead, that students turn the heading for each section into a question, and then study the section to answer the question.

Organizing Information and Recognizing Patterns

  • Encourage students to review previous course material as a part of a study session. Help students note patterns, connections, and relationships among ideas and concepts, not only to reinforce recall of important concepts, but also to highlight areas where comprehension and recall may be faulty.  
  • Have students practice grouping related information. Then have them practice choosing a key word, short phrase, or mnemonic retrieval cue to act as a trigger for their recall of the related details. Strong, precise nouns and verbs are probably the most useful words to use as cues.
    • By practicing recall using the retrieval cue, students will build a strong association between the cue and the details. Eventually, the cue will help them easily recall the associated information. Some studies of memory suggest that the retrieval cues are most effective when they are selected at the time of the initial learning.
  • Give students templates to help them create action plans for future tasks such as studying for tests, getting the night’s homework done, getting help in class, completing a long-term project, etc. Each template might include spaces for: a description of the task, an estimation of time and effort required, the names of the people involved as partners or helpers, familiar elements or aspects of the task, the order of steps required, the strategies that can be used. Templates may be saved on the computer, then individualized and printed out for specific tasks.  
  • Encourage students to use staging, i.e., to break a long or complex task into smaller, shorter, or less complex “mini-tasks.” For example, provide students with a pre-planning template (a blank timeline, flow chart, task web, etc.) for analyzing a task then breaking it into stages. If necessary, model the staging process for students to help them develop a sense of “step-wisdom,” an understanding of the proper sequence of steps necessary to complete a task.

Developing Strategies

  • Share your techniques for organizing and remembering information by rehearsing, elaborating, and using mnemonic strategies. For example, note the strategy you are using to perform a task, i.e. “Now I’m drawing a picture of what’s going on in the math problem to help me see what to do before I choose the operation.”  
  • To promote students’ development of strategies, provide students with a set of questions to ask themselves while learning and studying. For example, What does this remind me of’ What can I associate with it’ Can I picture it in my mind’ What pops into my head’ How can I use these associations to help me remember it‘  
  • Provide students with strategies for guiding their study sessions, such as the KWL-Plus strategy for assessing mastery during studying (What I know, What I want to learn, What I have learned, What I need to review, What more I need to learn).  
  • To ensure that you are teaching strategies effectively, use a checklist or helpful mnemonic, such as MIRRORS:
    • Model strategy and explain how to carry it out.Inform students when and how to use it.
    • Remind them to use it.
    • Repeat the strategy for practice.
    • Outline why the strategy is useful.
    • Reassess students’ performance when using the strategy.
    • Stress the generalization of the strategy to other appropriate activities, content areas, settings (other classrooms and at home), and over time. (Provide opportunities for students to practice using a strategy under these different conditions.)
  • A student who has not used strategies in the past may need his/her teacher to suggest strategies. Whenever possible, build on students’ natural tendencies. Question students to identify these tendencies, e.g., do they picture things in their heads, do they remember words, etc. For example, a student who remembers a word by rhyming it with a familiar word, may benefit from using linguistic and auditory strategies.  
  • Explore the many types of memory strategies that can help students learn and remember information. Encourage students to try a variety of memory strategies, such as mnemonics (e.g., Every Good Boy Does Fine) and visual imagery (i.e. pictures in the mind) to aid in their learning and studying. Allow students to practice using different strategies, finding those that are best suited to them.  
  • Point out explicit connections between a strategy and its value to learning and remembering. For example, “Making a list of the geometric shapes we’ve covered will help you to remember the shapes, and do a good job on the worksheet.”  
  • Encourage students to use self-testing strategies, such as reviewing or creating questions they think will be on a test. Have students use their questions to create a practice tests for each another, focusing on a chapter in social studies, a geometry unit, etc.  
  • Have students keep a record of the various ways they successfully complete different academic problems or use particular study techniques (i.e., create a menu of effective strategies).  
  • Stress the generalization of effective strategies to similar situations, e.g., a problem solving strategy used on a math worksheet can be used again on the math test the next day, etc.  
  • Connect students with mentors who will work with them to dissect the day, brainstorm alternative strategies, and provide recognition of progress.