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Internal and external differences in learning

Individual differences are inherently connected with human nature. Strategies are always initiated, enacted, and monitored by a learner who approaches tasks or problems in a unique way depending on individual variation in biological, psychological, as well as cognitive factors (Alexander et al., 2018; Chen & Siegler, 2000; Shen & Chen, 2006; Stroms© & Braten, 2010). Even though there is a generalizable character in the pattern of strategy development, developmental patterns are still truly individual, varying from one person to the other. Learners of the same age and at the same developmental stage within a domain may, for example, still apply different strategies to solve the same problem, even when the context is held constant (Chen & Siegler, 2000; Merchie et al., 2014; Pressley et al., 1990; Rogiers et al., 2019a). For example, in a study of Merchie and colleagues (2014) and Rogiers and colleagues (2019), four learner profiles were identified in both late elementary and secondary school students’ text-learning strategy use by means of cluster analysis. Whereas integrated strategy users (ISU) engaged in the strategic combination of different text-learning strategies, limited strategy users (LSU) generally used only a limited number of text-learning strategies. Information organizers (IO) frequently applied text-noting strategies and reported limited use of mental-learning strategies, while mental learners (ML) restricted their repertoire to mental learning strategies without text-noting strategy use. The individual nature of learners’ strategic processing is also explicitly acknowledged in Figure 4.1, by positioning internal factors in front as an important precondition. Various internal influences, such as learner characteristics (e.g., age, gender, prior knowledge, domain interest, assigned task value, general cognitive capacity, and working memory), might shape a different path between individuals. For example, the approaches suitable for young learners taking their first steps toward competence are, therefore, not likely to work for older or more proficient learners (Alexander, 2005).

Next to the inter-individual differences between learners, learning activities are inevitably shaped by the changing conditions within individuals (Chen & Siegler, 2000). These intra-individual differences are connected to factors external to the learner. That is, specific task features (e.g., complexity or structure of the task) and context features (e.g., supportive environment, time constraints) as well as the interplay among these features, might shape learners’ individual pattern of strategic development (Alexander et al., 2009). These significant differences between and within individuals can set boundaries or create opportunities for learning (Alexander et al., 2018). It is these (inter- or intra-)individual variabilities that determine what the path of strategy development may look like. Furthermore, as learning does not take place in a vacuum but emerges over time and space in a learning context, conditions external to the learnerplay a role in strategy development as well (Alexander et al., 2009). Accordingly, diverse individuals are learning at markedly different places both within and across time. These external factors refer to the ecological context in which learning occurs, which influences learning and is influenced by the learner. In this respect, we particularly refer to the physical and socio-cultural context as well as to the relationships among learners or between the learner and the wider environment. The latter involves the instructional support and guidance offered by educational practitioners or peers to foster learners’ strategy use and development. For example, acclimated learners need more support, time, and scaffolding to achieve the advantages that come more easily to expert learners. Additionally, this wider environment can also refer to the classroom or work context in which learning occurs, as well as to the increasingly diverse, online, and rapidly changing learning context 21st-century learners face. In this regard, not only does the learner develop and change over time but also the context in which learning is embedded (e.g., classroom, school, work, society) is subject to continual change as well (Nist & Simpson, 2000). As learners and their learning environment are reciprocally influencing each other, a complex interplay between the two occurs. In fact, learning to become strategic involves becoming responsive to the shifting demands of the learning context (Pressley, Goodchild, Fleet, Zajchowski, & Evans, 1989). By embracing external factors in our developmental framework, it acknowledges the learning context and the accompanying changes and challenges learners in all developmental stages face.

To conclude, we presented a framework of strategic processing that encompasses changes in learners’ strategy use across the lifespan. In sum, this conceptual framework is multi-staged in nature, including the configuration of strategies throughout three stages of strategy development (Alexander, 1998, 2003) and the accompanying quantitative (i.e., from less to more available and diverse strategies) and qualitative (i.e., from less to more efficient and adaptive strategies) shifts in learners’ strategy use.

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