Learning about Learning: Take Charge of Your Learning Strategies

grow your brain with learning strategiesDo you feel in charge of your own learning? Do you learn well regardless of how good or bad the instructor is, or even if there isn’t one at all? With the phenomenal wealth of information available today, we have more opportunity than ever to know nearly anything that is known. To take advantage of the informational treasure trove, we need to do some learning about learning strategies that can help.

One way to think about learning strategies is from the perspective of “Self-Regulated Learning” (SRL). SRL is a scientific approach to understanding study skills. The view from SRL is that learners tend to plan, monitor, and control some parts of their own cognition, motivation, behavior and learning environment. People who have learning strategies in each of these areas are fully in charge of their own learning.

Paul Pintrich of the University of Michigan outlined key phases of SRL in a way that can help organize and expand your learning strategies. He published his paper about a framework for self-regulated learning in Educational Psychology Review. I describe the phases below. A few examples to aid your learning strategies are also given for each.

Learning Strategies: Cognition

The first phase is about strategies learners can use to plan, monitor, and control their cognition. My (possibly biased) view is that cognition is central to learning strategies of all types.

Planning includes setting goals for your learning. Are you going to read about the water cycle to try to get a solid understanding of how it works? Or, do you just want to check off a homework assignment?

Another aspect of planning and preparation for learning is to refresh yourself on what you already know about the topic. Cognitive scientists sometimes call this learning strategy activating prior knowledge about the material to be studied. I guess that sounds more scientific. You can refresh yourself just by reflecting back on what you learned before. You can also literally go back and review old notes, books and the like.

To monitor your cognition means that you are keeping track of your progress toward your learning goals. Hopefully, the goals include understanding the material. Stop and explicitly ask yourself every once in a while – do I get this? If not, you may need to make a change.

Finally, you use strategies to control your learning and cognition. There are many strategies in cognition. Learning strategies are just one kind. Cognitive strategies can serve to aid your memory, learning, reasoning, thinking, problem solving, and decision making. A few examples that I’ve covered on Head Smart include test your memory study strategy, learn to learn from surprise, critical thinking skills, and a strategy for how to make a decision.

Learning Strategies: Motivation

Just as learners can regulate their cognition, they can also regulate their motivation. This includes attempts to plan, monitor and control your:

  • Purpose for learning the material
  • Judgment of your ability to learn the material
  • Beliefs about the importance, usefulness, and relevance of the material
  • Personal interest in the area

For example, suppose you just told yourself that you aren’t really interested in the water cycle. And the text is very dense. You now realize that you don’t feel like doing your homework because of your lack of interest. Congratulations – you have just monitored the situation!

Now, you can take control of your motivation by reminding yourself that last week you were trying to convince a friend about how important the environment is. And even though the text is not great, you can get something out of it if you stop every so often and explain to yourself what you just read. Keep trying – you know you can do it. Remind yourself of the value of perseverance. To cap it off, you might promise yourself that you’ll watch some TV or chat with your friends after you are done.

This just shows some learning strategies you can use to attempt to improve your motivation.

Learning Strategies: Behavior and Environment

You can plan, monitor, and control both your behavior and situation to enhance your learning, similar to what you do for your cognition and motivation.

Planning your time is one way to influence your own behavior. Time management includes making schedules for studying and allocating time for different learning activities.

Tests, quizzes, and grades are behavioral ways that we monitor learning. If you are learning on your own, trying to explain your new knowledge to others is a behavior that will let you know how well you’ve really got it.

One behavior strategy you can use to control your learning is to ask for help. Good learners know when, why, and from whom to seek help.

Suppose you notice that your study environment is full of distractions, such as music, TV, talkative friends. You can then try to control it by removing the distractions. You can also plan ahead and set a specific place for learning.

Taking control of your environment for learning doesn’t mean you always need to do it alone. Working with friends in study groups can be a useful way to influence your environment.

However you go about gaining new knowledge and skills now, you can improve your abilities by developing better learning strategies. The framework above can help you to organize other tips, strategies, and skills you encounter for learning. This can help you to better remember them, understand how they work, and put them to use.

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Image Credit: huhulin

Pintrich, P. (2004). A Conceptual Framework for Assessing Motivation and Self-Regulated Learning in College Students Educational Psychology Review, 16 (4), 385-407 DOI: 10.1007/s10648-004-0006-x

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