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Commentary: a conceptual framework for defining strategies and strategic processing

In this chapter, we have been asked to comment on the four proceeding chapters in this section of the Handbook. As a whole, the goal of this section is to forward a definition and conceptualization of strategies and strategic processing that can shed light on the past as well as illuminate a path to the future. Each chapter contributes to this goal by presenting a particular lens through which to consider these definitions. From these four chapters, we come to see strategic processing as it develops with time and experience, shifts across domains, varies across levels, and is embedded in both individual and socially collaborative tasks and environments. In this chapter, we present a definition of strategies and strategic processing derived through a synthesis of these views. The resulting definition is rich and the latter half of this chapter focuses on unpacking this richness. We begin, however, with a discussion of the fundamental questions that initiated our thinking about this chapter and the section as a whole.

Coming to terms with terms: a rationale for defining strategic processing

The questions that drove our initial thinking about this chapter began by challenging the assumption that underlies this section of the Handbook. Namely, the assumption that not only are definitions themselves worthy of our time and effort but also that strategic processing in particular warrants such concern. Two specific questions arose from this challenge: (1) why is it necessary to attend so closely to the definitions of some terms? and (2) why is strategic processing particularly deserving of this attention?

The Need to Define Terms

Our thinking with regard to the first question was guided by our training as Educational Psychologists. From this perspective, the need for careful definitions is understood by considering their role within the scholarly community of educational researchers. In this role, one reason that clear definitions are needed is because they provide the shared understandings needed to advance the science of learning and instruction. We were reminded of a seminal piece by Alexander, Schallert, and Hare (1991) that called for a “coming to terms” with the proliferation of labels and meanings that surrounded the study of knowledge. At that time, the educational research literature was awash with studies of both prior knowledge effects and knowledge acquisition, but inconsistencies in how terms were used made it difficult to synthesize across the literature. Alexander et al. (1991) undertook the task of organizing this literature into a single definitional framework and justified this effort by arguing that “labels function as an epistemological shorthand for researchers and practitioners [but] the spawning of terms without thoughtful exploration of the assumptions underlying the terms or the relationships of the terms to existing terminology may have serious theoretical and practical consequences” (p. 315).

In short, terms and definitions allow for the communication between members of a scholarly community that is necessary for the advancement of scientific knowledge. And, when this communication rests on murky grounds where the meanings and boundaries across terms is unclear, the outcome of this communication will be murky as well. Unfortunately, strategy and strategic processing are examples of such murky terms (Dinsmore & Hattan; Rogier et al., this volume). The chapters in this section draw attention to two particular areas within the study of strategic processing where there is a lack of clarity around terms. First, Rogier et al. distinguish between strategies that teachers use and strategies that students use. The former are pedagogical, or instructional, strategies while the latter are learning strategies. It is these learning strategies that are the focus of this Handbook and, as will be addressed later in this chapter, these strategies come in a variety of forms. A second area that lacks clarity is the distinction between skills and strategies. Skills and strategies are typically distinguished by their degree of automaticity. Skills are deployed automatically under the right conditions and strategies require effort (Dinsmore & Hattan, this volume). As pointed out in the chapter by Dumas, however, this distinction is inconsistently applied, particularly as one looks across domains of learning.

The need to clarify boundaries between pedagogical and learning strategies and between strategies and skills were both explicitly addressed in the chapters of this Handbook section. In addition, there is a need to clarify the boundary between strategy and strategic processing, and this boundary was only implicitly addressed in these chapters. Nonetheless, we can reason through these terms to clarify their distinction. Strategy is a noun and, as such, it can be used to identify a class of things. How we define strategy determines what does and does not belong within the class of things labeled as a strategy. Processing, or strategic processing, by contrast, is a verb. Strategic processing then refers to an action or something that one does. In some respects, this distinction parallels that drawn between the quantitative and qualitative properties of strategies addressed by the chapters in this section. As Rogier et al. (this volume) wrote, “quantity refers to the availability and diversity of strategies, while quality refers to the efficiency and adaptivity of strategies” (p. 52). Rather than focusing on this quantity/quality distinction here, however, we address this more strongly in terms of what students have and what students do (Dumas, this volume) because this distinction provides a productive framework for synthesizing the contents of the chapters in this section. We found this distinction useful as we read these chapters because each differed in whether the focus was on strategies or strategic processing. Dinsmore and Hattan, for example, emphasize how we can understand strategy when they discuss different types of strategies according to levels of processing. Butler and Schnellert, by contrast, place a greater emphasis on strategic processing when they discuss strategies as enacted within a regulatory cycle. Ultimately, this distinction provides the framework for the definitions we derived from these chapters, a definition we will return to in a later section.

A second reason for defining and discussing the meaning of the terms used in our field is because our understanding of the constructs they represent evolve and change over time. This evolution means that, when efforts to define constructs are limited in time and evidentiary foundations, the resulting definitions will, likewise, be limited. Warding off these limitations requires that definitions be revisited over time with recognition that the resulting discussions may lead to revised understandings of a term’s definition. Evolution in meaning occurs even for terms that seem clearly defined, and the definition of strategic processing is just such a case. One could argue that there is no need for chapters defining strategic processing because this term was defined long ago. In fact, authors in this section pointed out that the study of strategies in its current form has, more or less, been present in our field since the 1980s and 1990s (Butler & Schnellert, this volume; Rogier et al., this volume). In fact, the single most oft-cited definition of strategy found in these chapters was published back in the 1980s (i.e., Alexander & Judy, 1988). While we concede that the words of older definitions are still relevant today, what justifies the need to revisit definitions is that our understanding of what the words represent has evolved over time.

With respect to strategic processing, this evolution can be traced to both theoretical and practical developments and these developments were illustrated in the chapter by Butler and Schnellert. Theoretical developments since the 1990s, for example, have brought both self-regulated learning and socio-cultural frameworks to the study of strategic processing. As Butler and Schnellert show, strategic processing is now understood as occurring in culturally and socially situated self-regulated cycles. This, we conclude, is a substantial theoretical evolution from earlier research that was just beginning to uncover the role of metacognition in strategy use and transfer (e.g., Ghatala, Levin, Pressley, & Lodico, 1985; Paris, Newman, & Mcvey, 1982; Pressley, Ross, Levin, & Ghatala, 1984).

Butler and Schnellert also address the practical developments that have taken place over the last decades. Namely, the evolution to a 21st-century knowledge society where technological developments drive the need for strategic processing. In particular, these authors address the need for effective socially shared strategic processing in technology-supported and/or informationally rich collaborative environments such as Computer Supported Collaborative Learning and Problem Based Learning. Again, these current day learning environments look far different than those that were the subject of early strategy research, including the early research on strategy use in group settings (e.g., Brown, Pressley, Van Meter, & Schuder, 1996; McDonald, Larson, Dansereau, & Spurlin, 1985; Palinscar & Brown, 1984).

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