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Learning How to Learn

Part of a Series: Here’s Why I Love Content Types: And You Should, Too

05-13 Bookshelf Oz

Sometimes Napping Is the Best Learning Strategy

Cognitive Strategies. With this content type, we help our learners to manage their own learning. For example, we teach study skills. We show students how to organize their thoughts, or good ways to memorize, or how to use elaboration to tie something they’re learning to their own experience. (Cognitive strategies can also include thinking strategies, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Years ago, one of our profs recommended that we read each article he’d assigned to us twice. He suggested noting unfamiliar terms, writing out their definitions, and coming up with our own examples for each one. That’s an example of a learning strategy for acquiring new concepts.

To apply cognitive strategies, learners review what must be learned and then create and carry out plans for learning it (they are applying problem solving to improve their learning).

Why We Teach Cognitive Strategies

This is an often neglected area of teaching. Some students figure out their own strategies, but most will benefit from learning how to apply strategies specifically designed to help them learn.

By teaching cognitive strategies we can help our learners to make the best use of their capacity to learn.

Examples of Learning Strategies

When teaching learning strategies, we might include:


  • Chunking
  • Mind-mapping
  • Outlining
  • Underlining
  • Creating mnemonics


  • Note taking (if more than just copying text)
  • Creating analogies
  • Adding personal examples
  • Visualization


  • Making and using flash cards
  • Repeating the content over and over

Metacognitive Strategies

  • Setting learning goals
  • Planning how to approach a learning problem
  • Monitoring progress
  • Checking for understanding
  • Revising a strategy that isn’t working

Affective Domain Strategies

  • Maintaining a positive attitude
  • Time management
  • Stress management

How to Teach Cognitive Strategies

Here are the main steps for teaching a particular learning strategy (there is some flexibility in the order of these steps):

  • Show when to use the strategy (when it will work best).
  • Review the steps in the strategy.
  • Demonstrate how to use it.
  • Show examples and nonexamples of ways learners have used the strategy, for example, review analogies that do and don’t clarify a topic.
  • Provide practice. Start easy, move to more complex uses.
  • Give feedback.
  • Encourage transfer by reviewing with the learners when they might use the strategy.

If you test learners on a cognitive strategy, resist the temptation to test them on the content they used the strategy to learn. Instead, provide a test on how well the learners apply the strategy itself. For example, did they create a thorough mind-map or a useful analogy? Did they grasp the principle of chunking content to make it more meaningful?

Once a learner has acquired a cognitive strategy, she can use it whenever it fits a particular learning task. The strategies provide opportunities for learners to be engaged; that engagement will improve their ability to remember and apply what they are learning.


Article | Metacognition: An Overview

Other Posts in This Series

Post | Here’s Why I Love Content Types: And You Should, Too
Post | Learning to Spout Stuff—Necessary, But Seldom Sufficient
Post | It’s a Concept—Got It?
Post | Easy Does It—Step-By-Step
Post | It’s the Principle of the Thing: Predicting, Explaining, and Applying the Rules
Post | Got Problems? Teaching Your Learners to Fix Them

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