Lenny Gonzales

What’s the key to effective learning? One intriguing body of research suggests a rather gnomic answer: It’s not just what you know. It’s what you know about what you know.

To put it in more straightforward terms, anytime a student learns, he or she has to bring in two kinds of prior knowledge: knowledge about the subject at hand (say, mathematics or history) and knowledge about how learning works. Parents and educators are pretty good at imparting the first kind of knowledge. We’re comfortable talking about concrete information: names, dates, numbers, facts. But the guidance we offer on the act of learning itself—the “metacognitive” aspects of learning—is more hit-or-miss, and it shows.

Research has found that students vary widely in what they know about how to learn, according to a team of educational researchers from Australia writing in this month’s issue of the journal Instructional Science. Most striking, low-achieving students show “substantial deficits” in their awareness of the cognitive and metacognitive strategies that lead to effective learning—suggesting that these students’ struggles may be due in part to a gap in their knowledge about how learning works.

Teaching students good learning strategies would ensure that they know how to acquire new knowledge, which leads to improved learning outcomes, writes lead author Helen Askell-Williams of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. And studies bear this out. Askell-Williams cites as one example a recent finding by PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, which administers academic proficiency tests to students around the globe, and place American students in the mediocre middle. “Students who use appropriate strategies to understand and remember what they read, such as underlining important parts of the texts or discussing what they read with other people, perform at least 73 points higher in the PISA assessment—that is, one full proficiency level or nearly two full school years—than students who use these strategies the least,” the PISA report reads.

In their own study, Askell-Williams and her coauthors took as their subjects 1,388 Australian high school students. They first administered an assessment to find out how much the students knew about cognitive and metacognitive learning strategies—and found that their familiarity with these tactics was “less than optimal.”

Students can assess their own awareness by asking themselves which of the following learning strategies they regularly use (the response to each item is ideally “yes”):

  • I draw pictures or diagrams to help me understand this subject.
  • I make up questions that I try to answer about this subject.
  • When I am learning something new in this subject, I think back to what I already know about it.
  • I discuss what I am doing in this subject with others.
  • I practice things over and over until I know them well in this subject,
  • I think about my thinking, to check if I understand the ideas in this subject.
  • When I don’t understand something in this subject I go back over it again.
  • I make a note of things that I don’t understand very well in this subject, so that I can follow them up.
  • When I have finished an activity in this subject I look back to see how well I did.
  • I organize my time to manage my learning in this subject.
  • I make plans for how to do the activities in this subject.

Askell-Williams and her colleagues found that those students who used fewer of these strategies reported more difficulty coping with their schoolwork. For the second part of their study, they designed a series of proactive questions for teachers to drop into the lesson on a “just-in-time” basis—at the moments when students could use the prompting most.

These questions, too, can be adopted by any parent or educator to make sure that children know not just what is to be learned, but how.

  • What is the topic for today’s lesson?
  • What will be important ideas in today’s lesson?
  • What do you already know about this topic?
  • What can you relate this to?
  • What will you do to remember the key ideas?
  • Is there anything about this topic you don’t understand, or are not clear about?
Do Students Know Enough Smart Learning Strategies? 22 March,2012Annie Murphy Paul

  • What’s missing in so much of our schools because of rigid curriculum is the opportunity for divergent thinking and metacognition! I recommend the book Visible Thinking. I wrote more about it here: http://imaginationsoup.net/2012/01/teach-kids-to-think-about-their-thinking-metacognition/

  • LMO

    When you tell someone “Study hard…..”…You don’t automaticlly think that studying is a skill that needs to be leanred..I got a D+ the first time I took Chemistry as a young adult. The teacher was intimidating but I didn’t care. I kept on asking questions. She would always answer me with “It’s in your book, if you just read it, you should understand!”…The next chemistry instructor I had changed my whole life. Chem 110 Karl Abrams..He said “I want all of you to pass this class with at least a B+!  And how you are going to do that is by taking a Study Skills Class..”..He then introduced a Study Skills instructor who presented the goals and benefits of taking a Study Skill Class. I felt a sense of relief and inspiration shared by others who felt stupid about learning chemistry. Students young and older shared stories of how they were made to feel stupid because they couldn’t get good grades after reading the assignments. All those of us who chose to continue with the Study Skills Class learned how to study, how to take notes, how to read to answer the coarse objectives as opposed to just reading text. We learned how to open a text book, reading the titles and the pictures so that by the time we approach the assigned chapter, we were familiar with the subject. It’s unfortunate that many teachers aren’t encouraged to teach in that format with the intention of helping students to learn the material. To many collage teachers just want to be the center of attention. Most teachers aren’t like that and I feel most teachers, gramer and up to high school really want to help their students learn. In Karl Abrams class on the first exam, I recieved the second highest A….one of my most satisfying moments in my 23 year old life..I passed the class with a B+ and an A- for my lab. Professor Abrams and his study skills class inspired me, paving the way for me to eventually become a critical care RN, achieve goals in long distance running, brown belt in karate, belly dancing and just how to learn in life. A great philosopher of life once said “Our greatest glory comes not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Thankyou Professor Abrams and to the wonderul Study Skills instructor who taught us not only how to pass our classes but how move forward in life.

  • Jennifer Roland

    Great post! Learning how to learn is the most important thing. I think that is why digital portfolios and blogs can be such powerful tools for kids to organize and reflect on their learning.

  • LMO

    Dear Annie Murphy Hall, I hope you keep writting about the value of study skills. Send your article to as many people who will listen and help students…all students in school and out in the world. So many young and not so  young suffer in insolation with their struggle to be able to learn. As your article shows, this is a fixable problem. Thankyou for writing it!

  • Part of the metacognitive toolkit is recognizing and interpreting emotional states that arise in the course of the learning process.

    See “Cognition, Affect, and Learning” for more details on the role of emotions in learning.


  • Drbisikay

     This is exactly “the missing curricullum” in oue current educational systems as they are programmed. We need to introduce what I call “EDUCOLOGY” – The Knowledge of How to Know, The Thinking about How to Think and The Learning about How to Learn. This will help us move from Pedagogical and Andragogical type Learning to “Autagogical” Learning, whereby the Learners are Self-Educated.

    • Teacherdixon

      Thanks to No Child Left Behind kids are left. As a Learning Disabilites Specialist, prior to the great testing wave, I use to work closely with my students in “educating them in how to learn.”. Now I all do is help them get through curriculum beyond their comprehension, memorize facts for a one day test that determines whether they get a diploma or certificate, and see their “gifts” ignored by state standards! My students with strong parental support may survive while the majority of my students falter. Teaching students how to learn appears to be lost in the quagmire of what is today’s educational system.

  • Anonymous

    I think research in this area is only going to become more and more important especially as personalized learning driven by technology is putting children in the driver’s seat of their educational future. 

    Additionally, many desirable qualities of the 21st century workforce like “problem-solving” and “creative thinking” all have roots in a strong foundation of this metacognitive thinking. If students are equipped to learn how to learn most anything, they will be more than ready to excel in an ever-changing flexible job world that demands constant learning and the creative destruction of established norms and procedures.-Michael

  • Adisack Nhouyvanisvong, PhD

    Metacognitive thinking is truly important. We need to teach it more in schools. Metacognitive processes such as the feeling-of-knowing can be a great decision making mechanism. Metacognitive processes such as reflection can help students resolve what they thought they knew with what they actually know. Metacognition is also important during testing; it actually helps turn testing moments into learning moments. See how we do this at http://www.naiku.net.

  • Lawrence Lerner

    This is doubtless the reason why it is so much easier to learn a second (or subsequent) foreign language than a first one. At least, that has been my experience.

  • Liliana Borrero

    Learning to learn is the name of the game in the 21st Century. In the information era we all need to be constantly updating our knowledge and skills in any field. In other words, today we need to be life-long learners in order to be competitive, successful, and to survive in the workplace. Besides the metacognition and reading comprehension skills already mentioned, I have found extremely useful with my students and myself the 9 effective instructional strategies established by Pickering, Pollock, and Marzano (2000). These strategies refer to the kind of processes we need to engage in order to elaborate, understand, retain, and retrieve new information. These strategies are: identifying similarities and differences, summarizing and note taking, reinforcing effort and providing recognition, homework and practice, nonlinguistic representations, cooperative learning, setting objectives and providing feedback, generating and testing hypotheses, and ques questions, cues and advance organizers. They are very effective and brain-based. Happy smart learning!

  • Erwin Gierlinger

    Hi and thanks for the information. Being a seasoned foreign language teacher it always puzzled me that my not so successful students seemed to have been ok in all sorts of things (e.g. very good at computer games, etc  but just not in languages). On the one hand the idea of  – wrong strat’s, rather than stupid buggers – seems very appealing for a teacher. On the other hand, research on investment and identitiy  in FLL is , well, sobering. Anyway, read my ideas on this in my blog: 

  • Erwin Gierlinger

    Hi and thanks for the information. Being a seasoned foreign language teacher it always puzzled me that my not so successful students seemed to have been ok in all sorts of things (e.g. very good at computer games, etc  but just not in languages). On the one hand the idea of  – wrong strat’s, rather than stupid buggers – seems very appealing for a teacher. On the other hand, research on investment and identitiy  in FLL is , well, sobering. Anyway, read my ideas on this in my blog: 

  • kumar

    Thanks for the information. In this the author tells about learning and thinking skills of a student . It is nice idea to study the knowledge of students using cognitive and meta cognitive learning strategies. These strategies useful to students to under stand what they learn?

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