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Commentary: an analysis of learning strategies in action

There can be no doubt about significant interest in learning strategies when a Google search for the literal string “learning strategies” returns approximately 7,830,000 results (2019 July 11, 13:45). Given that result, an astonishing finding is the relatively small volume of research about such a popular topic. Searching PsychINFO for academic journal articles with titles containing “learning” and either “strategies” or “strategy” yielded a considerably smaller set of just 1896 items (2019 July 11, 13:44). I speculate there may be much conjecture, hearsay, and even some misinformation about learning strategies populating the Internet. Educational practitioners and scholars can be thankful for chapters in this section of the Handbook that plumb research work on learning strategies.

The range of subject matter domains and diversity of learning contexts surveyed in these chapters reflect multiple conceptions about learning strategies, challenges students face in developing and applying learning strategies, and their value in education. This variety also complicates and tangles understandings about what learning strategies are, how learners use them, which effects are associated with learning strategies, and what should be next steps in research programs. I endeavor to address these issues.

Good news and qualifications

Almost every one of the chapters in this section of the Handbook, with qualifications and some specializations, reports three important findings from research.

First, learners appear to be strategic. Their naturally developed strategies generally are few in number, quite limited in applicability, somewhat naive, and typically neither well matched to conditions nor particularly effective. The good news is learners appear “naturally inclined” to develop strategies. I interpret this as a strong signal they have engaged in self-regulated learning (SRL). Experience as a self-regulating learner over the span of childhood is quite likely a productive resource educators can tap for students’ benefit.

Second, while it is neither easy nor quickly accomplished, learners can be taught new learning strategies. Notably, even quite young learners can be taught. While training may be successful, a downside is the rather severe scarcity of data documenting robust transfer of trained strategies beyond the training setting and the end of training. Successes in helping learners build learning strategies typically yield quite localized and short-lived benefits.

Third, training plus on-the-spot support, e.g., autonomy support (see Taboada Barber, Lutz Klauda, & Cartwright, this volume), which offers learners meaningful choices about how to learn and encourages making choices based on personal motivations like interest and challenge, can help learners to identify when and how to apply a particular strategy, and to persist during early phases of developing a new learning strategy when achieving goals is erratic. But, as often befalls educational research findings, multiple and sometimes overwhelming caveats are appropriate. Isolating specific factors as the causes of changes in achievement is very challenging and often not successful. Tamping down excessive optimism about learning strategies needs constant attention not only by Internet surfers but also by researchers and teachers.

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