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What is a learning strategy?

It is rare to be able to state anything with certainty, but I can report with barely any qualification these chapters concur about one claim: there is a great deal of variance in what a learning strategy is deemed to be and, to a lesser extent, what particular effects a strategy is designed to accomplish (see also Van Meter & Campbell, this volume). Awash in this soup of definitions is moderate consensus about two claims. First, learners should develop or be taught learning strategies. Second, life in school and afterward will be less rewarding if learners are not skilled strategy users. In this context, as I discuss later, there is a missing piece. It is decision-making strategies for choosing which particular learning strategy is most useful in particular circumstances. The broad scope of learning strategies discussed in this section of the Handbook make clear there are many, many strategies. Within subject matter topics, and across disciplines and contexts, teachers are challenged to choose which learning strategies are most appropriate to teach to learners. Then, learners face a daunting task to pick a winning learning strategy from a quite assorted set.

Learning strategies populate a large and multidimensional conceptual space. Each chapter in this section shines differently filtered light on learning strategies. Finding commonality is challenging. In some cases, leaning strategies can be organized along axes of disciplinary schemas for knowledge, various epistemological stances, and even methods researchers use to identify when a learner applies a learning strategy. This can be seen in the chapters focusing on learning strategies differentially appropriate in mathematics, history, and science.

Taking another perspective, a learning strategy refers to how a learner engaged in any task proceeds in a context-sensitive way to stepwise traverse a lattice of cognitive engagements with information in a context where information is updated at each step the strategy is applied. Reading and writing are examples, as would be a set play in basketball or plans for preparing Thanksgiving dinner.

Graham et al. (this volume) and Lombardi and Bailey (this volume) are explicit about how the warp and woof of learning strategies also can be shaped by sociocultural factors in settings where learners live and in which strategies are cued, enacted, and judged. List (this volume) illustrates how even the format of information has a bearing on what learning strategies are considered to be, how learners use them, and what effects they have. Strategies, like chemical isotopes, can vary in minor ways that matter, as Newton (this volume) described.

It is also clear learning strategies can be schemas abstracted from disciplines and represented in content learners are assigned. Strategic readers are described by Afflerbach, Hurt, and Cho (this volume) as, for example, attending to main ideas, synthesizing a summary, creating inferences, forming causal and comparative syntheses. List (this volume) describes learners working with multiple sources as using strategies to seek logical or positional concordance, trustworthiness, and conceptual completeness when mining the internet for ingredients to assemble a term paper. Students reading historical documents approach expertise when they adopt a skeptical stance about the balance and credibility of evidential claims vis-à-vis value-infused and potentially biased interpretations, as De La Paz and Nokes (this volume) discussed. Strategies play roles in how learners conceptualize, act, and react in collaborative work like that illustrated by Baars, Winjia, de Bruiin and Paas (this volume). It may even be the case that learning strategies are expressions of basic features of the cognitive system, namely, capabilities comprising executive functions, a possibility introduced by Taboada Barber et al. (this volume).

All these conceptualizations of what a learning strategy is and what it is for have significant implications in developing an account of what it could mean to be an expert learning strategist. Learners differ in the cognitive operations they apply in tasks, in qualities of those operations and behaviors, in the patterns formed of those constituents, and in temporal and conditional relations among qualitatively textured behaviors. The information one learner draws from memory and assembles with information available in the environment differs from what another learner does. Does this make for different learning strategies or variants of one? Such a multiplex of what a learning strategy “is” leads me to believe a linear continuum is an inept representation of expertise. Learning strategies are better situated within a multidimensional space where axes likely are not orthogonal. For example, an adaptive strategy is likely a complex strategy because adaptivity requires branching points where decisions about what to do next are informed as states of work on a task are successively updated step by step. The more adaptive a strategy, the less likely may be a learners incentive to use it because the final results of applying the strategy become less predictable. And, because one of those axes is time, a learning strategy is temporally fluid. As time flows and the state of a task is updated, strategies likely flex. In this tangle of descriptions about learning strategies, is there a center? Perhaps.

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