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Defining terms: the meaning of strategies and strategic processing

We began our task of defining strategies and strategic processing by pulling definitional elements from each of the four chapters in this section. A conceptualization of these terms emerged as we sorted those elements and worked to synthesize across the chapters. As explained above, one critical feature that emerged was the need to distinguish between what is a strategy and strategic processing. With that distinction in mind, we offer the following definitions.

A strategy is an effortful, goal-directed form of procedural knowledge that is stored in long-term memory. There are different types of strategies and these strategies must be coordinated with one another during complex tasks.

Strategic processing is the planful, effective enactment of strategies. Strategies are flexibly and adaptively applied to achieve goals in self-regulated cycles.

Before proceeding to an explanation of these definitions, two features should be pointed out here. First, the repetition of goal in these two definitions is intentional. Though we explain this in more detail below, for now we share that goals sit between strategies and strategic processing because it is the students goal that moves a strategy from what one knows to what one does. That is not to say that the goal itself determines or identifies the strategy. Indeed, goals must be separated from strategies because one goal can be achieved through different strategies and a single strategy can support progress toward different goals (Dumas, this volume). Yet, at the same time, it is not possible to understand either a strategy or strategic processing event without consideration of the students goal(s). The second feature concerns the use of italics for some of the words in the definitions. The italicized words represent essential features of these definitions. The remainder of this section is dedicated to explaining those features and unpacking the complexity of strategies and strategic processing.

What Is a Strategy?

Effortful, Goal-Oriented, Procedural Knowledge. Identifying a strategy as a form of procedural knowledge invokes some of the known characteristics of this knowledge form. As such, we can say that one’s knowledge of a particular strategy is knowledge of how to do something. And, just like one’s knowledge of how to tie a tie or make coffee, this knowledge is stored in long-term memory and lies dormant until called upon for some task. Unlike simpler procedures like coffee-making and tie-tying, the conditions for invoking a strategy can be less certain and, thus, strategy transfer is less certain. This can be attributed, at least in part, to the conditional knowledge that is associated with strategies. Conditional knowledge is knowledge of when and why a strategy should be used and this knowledge is directly tied to the goal-oriented nature of strategy knowledge: the goal identifies what needs to be achieved (e.g., memorization, attention maintenance) and the conditions identify the strategies that align with that goal. Goals are discussed in greater depth below but, with respect to strategy knowledge, goals and conditional knowledge effect strategy transfer in two ways. First, the flexibility of strategies means that conditions for using a particular strategy may not be as well specified as the conditions for other forms of procedural knowledge. There really is, for example, only one set of conditions under which one must tie a tie, but there are many different conditions under which strategies such as outlining, brainstorming, or self-explanation may be useful.

On the other hand, the conditional knowledge associated with a strategy may be too well specified; that is, too narrowly defined. Dumas (this volume) illustrates this in his discussion of task-specific strategies. A task-specific strategy is one that may be very powerful, but is useful for only one specific task., e.g., the FOIL strategy for remembering how to multiply binomials, Every-Good-Boy-Does-Fine for remembering the notes on a musical staff. While it is true that these specific examples are useful for only a single task, we disagree that the strategy itself is task specific because both are examples of the first-letter mnemonic strategy to support memory (Levin, 1993). A student whose procedural knowledge represents these examples as specific instances of this broader memory strategy is likely to use the strategy across tasks in which remembering both elements and their order matters, e.g., to remember Piaget’s developmental stages. This student’s procedural knowledge representation will connect the strategy procedures with a broader, more flexible set of conditions, thereby increasing the probability that the strategy will transfer to new contexts. The issue of conditional knowledge in the learning of strategies is important and one that we found to be under-addressed within the chapters of this section.

In addition to drawing attention to students’ knowledge of the conditions for strategy use, recognizing a strategy as a form of procedural knowledge also points out the potential for a strategy to be practiced to the point of automaticity. Just as one can automatize coffee-making and tie-tying, one can automatize the use of (at least some) strategies. It is this automaticity that distinguishes between a strategy and a skill. A skill is automatic; a strategy is effortful. Strategies then, require that cognitive resources be expended toward not just the material that is the target of the strategy, such as learning Piaget’s developmental stages, but also toward the strategy itself. For this reason, teachers must take care not to overload students’ cognitive resources by asking them to learn both challenging new content and a new strategy at the same time (Reynolds, 2000).

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