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Conceptualizing strategies in educational research

The question of whether a given strategy can be considered domain-general or specific relies in critical ways on the definition and conceptualization of strategies themselves. Here, strategies are defined as goal-directed procedures that are planfully and effortfully used to aid in the regulation, execution, or evaluation of a particular problem or task (Alexander & Judy, 1988). In this way, strategies can be useful either within a single domain of learning or across many domains, but all strategies are essentially a special form of procedural knowledge in which a student knows how to enact a given process that improves their capability in problem solving or learning. For example, the study strategy of creating a concept map in order to organize and relate information is, in itself, a form of knowledge because a student has to know what a concept map is and how to create one effectively. But, the procedural knowledge of how to create a concept map can be identified as strategic because such procedural knowledge improves a student’s development of the particular academic knowledge (e.g., the civil rights movement within the domain of history) that they are studying when the concept map is used. Of course, a concept map may also be hypothetically helpful when the same student is studying a different topic in a different domain (e.g., taxonomic categories in biology), but there is no guarantee that the same individual student will be capable of evoking the concept map strategy equally effectively across domains.

As stated above, a key component to the definition of strategies is that the procedures enacted by students are done so purposefully, effortfully, and consciously. In contrast, if a strategy is utilized by an individual student enough times that it becomes an automatic habit of mind, it is no longer utilized effortfully and therefore is not referred to as a strategy. Instead, an automated form of procedural knowledge that students may utilize to improve their learning or performance within and across academic settings is referred to as a skill (Afflerbach, Pearson, & Paris, 2008; Alexander et al., 1998). Using this terminology, skills and strategies are often referred to together within the literature (e.g., Vettori, Vezzani, Bigozzi, & Pinto, 2018) because direct instruction of these procedures must begin with the assumption that students will use strategies effortfully before progressing to more automated and rapid utilization of skills. In some areas of educational research that focus on domains or disciplines in which very rapid problem solving is highly valued and a typical instructional goal, e.g., medical education research, Dumas, Torre and Durning’s (2018) strategies and skills may be referred to synonymously with the understanding that the fast and automatic deployment of cognitive procedures is the best or only way to utilize particular strategies in the real-world setting, e.g., triaging patients based on visible symptoms. In contrast, educational research that focuses on domains of learning or populations of students in which a slower, more effortful processing typically results in better student outcomes (e.g., multiple-source use; De La Paz & Felton, 2010), shows that the careful theoretical division of strategies and skills is more common within the literature.

One way in which the distinction between strategies and skills complicates the question of domain-generality that is the central focus of this chapter is that, within the same student, certain forms of procedural knowledge may be more or less effortful (i.e., strategic) or automated (i.e., skillful) across domains. In this way, even though a student is capable of using their procedural knowledge to learn more effectively across domains, the actual enactment of that procedural knowledge may appear very different and make domain-general strategic processing difficult to identify. For example, if a student has ample experience in reading informational or persuasive text, they are likely to be familiar with the strategy of questioning the author to improve their comprehension of the text. In fact, they may be so practiced at questioning the author that they do so automatically and rapidly (i.e., skillfully) when reading. However, if the same student visited the more unfamiliar context of an art museum and found themselves tasked with “reading” visual art (i.e., painting or sculpture), they may either not understand that the strategy of questioning the artist was useful, or they may transfer the procedural knowledge effectively, but do so in a slow, effortful (i.e., strategic) way. In this way, the procedure of questioning the author/artist would be a domain-general process, but the enactment of that procedure may appear so different in its pacing and effortfulness that an instructor who worked with the student across domains may not recognize the process as the same.

Such a scenario highlights a fundamental aspect of strategies in that they are something that students do. This specifically procedural aspect of strategies and skills separates this area of research from the majority of areas within psychology that focus on mental constructs that individuals have. In the educational psychology literature, it is not difficult to identify a number of research foci that are specifically defined as something that students have, or are working to develop, within their minds. For example, creativity is one construct that has historically concerned educational psychologists (Dumas, 2018; Torrance, 1972) and that is typically defined as something that students have in varying amounts and the development of which is supported to varying degrees by particular instruction. However, such a conceptualization of creativity, however interesting and relevant to education, cannot directly describe what students specifically do, in terms of cognitive processes, in order to produce more creative ideas. For that, a much more specific line of research inquiry on strategies for creativity would be needed. This foundational “have vs. do” issue in strategy research is highly relevant to the measurement of strategies (Liu, 2014), because the observation of a cognitive process that students do is much more difficult and specific an undertaking than the quantitative estimation of a cognitive ability that students have. This measurement-related issue will arise again within this chapter during the discussion of the operationalization of domain-generality and specificity, because psychometric procedures designed for the measurement of constructs that students have (e.g., factor analysis) make different predictions about the domain-generality of skills and strategies than does a more specific process-oriented approach. However, before this operationalization problem can be discussed, the meaning of a domain of learning in contrast to other defined areas such as discipline or task must be explained.

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