3 Types of Learning Strategies

May 10, 2018

Meaningful learning depends just as much on the teaching process as it does on the way students process the teaching. Educational psychologists have spent a lot of time thinking about both aspects and have come up with theories to make them better. In this article we’re going to talk about the second part: learning strategies.

The main goal of learning strategies is to get students to become more effective learners. Research on the topic has shown us plenty of different ways to do that. But the three most famous learning strategies are mnemonic, structural, and generative.

Mnemonic strategies

Mneumonic learning strategies help students memorize content, like facts or terms. For example, they’re useful for remembering capital cities, important dates, vocabulary, etc. When you have to memorize “meaningless” information, mnemonic strategies are a great way to give it some kind of meaning.

The value of mneumonic devices is widely agreed upon, which is why they’ve been used for such a long time. The psychologist Allan Paivio explained that these devices work for three reasons:

  • Dual coding: many involve using non-verbal codes (images) alongside verbal ones (words). What that means is that the same bit of content gets two different codes. According to the principles of connectionism, that makes it easier for students to access the information.
  • Organization: another way these strategies work is by creating a consistent box to put the information in. That helps students keep all the related information together, instead of it being split apart. For example, it’s easier for you to remember a list of words if you form a sentence with them.
  • Association: creating strong connections between different elements is also a strategy for meaningful learning. Strong associations are helpful because when you see either one of the two things, you’ll remember the other one easily.
Learning strategies.

One example of a mnemonic strategy is the key word method. This method is extremely useful for learning confusing vocabulary in a foreign language. It involves a phonetic and image-based connection, along with a detailed explanation.

Structural strategies

Structural strategies stimulate active learning by encouraging students to mentally pick out important information and put it together into one structure. This is where you’ll see techniques like making conceptual maps, flow charts, or outlines.

Obviously it’s not enough for the teacher to tell students they have to do outlines and summaries. Those things will only be helpful if the students know how to make them. The hardest part of teaching them how to do it is showing them how to pick out the most important or meaningful parts of a text or presentation.

It won’t take long for you to see the effects these techniques have on learning. When you organize course material into small, related ideas, it’s easier to access it. And when you make strong associations between these ideas, it’s also easier to access the rest of the information in your memory.

Research shows that students who use these techniques perform at higher levels. They also help students truly understand the content, unlike with rote, superficial learning. You can see the value now in bringing these learning strategies into the classroom!

Generative strategies

With the other two strategies, we looked at how they help students remember specific facts and organize them into structures. That is, they’re techniques to use with new information that needs to be learned. But another important part of learning is incorporating new content into existing knowledge. That’s where generative strategies come in.

E.Z. Rothkpof called these activities where students gain knowledge “mathemagenic activities.” Some examples are taking notes, underlining, asking and answering questions, or saying things out loud. They help students reach a deeper understanding because they force them to incorporate the new information.

Studying with coffee outside.

A lot of psychologists see active learning as students making connections between ideas. That’s why generative strategies are such a great tool to get students to use that kind of learning. Showing students how to take notes or ask themselves questions will greatly help them understand and incorporate new information. 

In this article we’ve explored different learning strategies that can be extremely useful in the classroom. Scientific research into teaching and education can help you achieve the kind of active, deep learning you want your students to have. It would be a huge mistake not to follow the guidelines and evidence that educational psychology has provided us.