We're all familiar with the popular saying, "Give a man a fish and you have fed him for today; teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime." This adage certainly holds true for the ways we approach teaching and learning.
I have often made mention of how important it is to help students become "strategic" in their approach to learning, and how the Strategic Instruction Model (SIM) was one proven approach to helping students build essential skills and to learn complex subject matter. The SIM model was offered as a way for teachers to imbed effective strategies into classroom instruction. Strategic teaching? Strategies to enhance learning? Let's take a closer look at what we mean by "strategies" from a student's perspective and why they are so important.
Simply stated, learning strategies are methods that students use to learn. (Note: while the focus here is on students, it goes without saying that there is a set of complementary actions and behaviors that need to be initiated by teachers for these strategies to be most effective). These methods often vary in effectiveness from one student to another, and can be very helpful at certain times, while at other times prove to be annoying and in fact interfere with learning. Learning strategies can be useful when learning new skills as well as helpful when practicing these skills or applying them to new situations.
So What's the Big Deal About Strategies?
Imagine the following: After listening to in-class lectures, a student spends hours and hours combing through class notes and re-reading chapters in his text book in preparation for a test later in the week. He reads page after page, taking notes and trying to remember the important points. Answering the questions at the end of each chapter and reading over worksheets prepared by the teacher gives him a sense of confidence. A test is given and grade is, well, disappointing.
This scenario is all too familiar. It highlights what has been well-documented in the learning disabilities literature:
- Good effort is often not enough to promote efficient learning
- While explicit, well-focused teaching coupled with opportunities for practice and lots of feedback makes a huge difference, especially for students who struggle to learn, even this may not be enough
- Without a systematic and organized (systematic + organized = strategic) approach to learning, studying new materials is often just "spray and pray"...try hard, see what happens, and hope for the best.
To become active learners, three things need to happen:
- Students (as well as teachers and parents) need to recognize their unique strengths (often referred to as "learning styles" or "preferences") and challenges (i.e. disorders of attention) and be able to articulate and act upon them in mindful ways
- Students (in partnership with parents and teachers) need to set reasonable expectations for achievement that take into consideration such things as:
- Timelines for getting work done (this is especially critical if a student is far behind his classmates)
- How much 1:1 or small group time is available to provide targeted assistance, either during the school day or after school hours
- Distractions (i.e., attention difficulties, after-school activities) that might interfere with studying independently or keeping to a schedule of progress
- Students need to develop a repertoire of effective strategies that help to streamline the learning process and that effectively prepare them to demonstrate and remember what they have learned.