Current cognitive theories of learning point to the important role students' thought processes play in learning. Students need to be mentally active processors of information if learning is to occur. In these formulations, several criteria must be met if learning is to occur. First, students must attend to information to be learned. Second, students must create an understanding of the material by creating or identifying relationships amongst the to-be-learned ideas. Third, students need to relate new ideas to prior knowledge. Fourth, students need to understand that learning requires mental effort - good learners are strategic and poor learners are not, and that strategy use is the means by which learning occurs.
When students attend to information, try to see how new ideas relate to each other, or try to relate new information to prior knowledge they are engaged in strategy use. A strategy is a mental event carried out by the learner to achieve some desired goal (such as remembering some fact). For example, if the teacher announces there will be a test next Thursday, the student may repeat that fact over and over (rehearsal) until the student is confident he/she remembers it.
While much research has been conducted on problem-solving and learning strategies, many of those strategies are domain-specific and not generalizable across the curriculum. For example, considerable research as been devoted to remedial reading strategies (such as backtracking, vocabulary recognition, inferencing) and mathematics problem-solving. However, the discussion in this paper will be focused upon a set of generalizable strategies that meet two criteria: they are well researched and have been demonstrated to enhance memory and they are generalizable across content domains and can be used in almost all areas of study. In most cases, these strategies have been demonstrated to enhance performance of students requiring remedial assistance (such as low ability or LID students) and have been used with students across a wide age range, from as young as eight years (grade three) to university undergraduates.
The remainder of this paper will be divided into two sections.
The first section will describe each strategy (including imagery, elaborative
interrogation, acronyms, keyword method, summarizing and concept mapping)
by explaining what the strategy is for, why it is thought to enhance memory,
the steps in executing the strategy, and an example of the strategy.
The second section of the paper will describe how strategies can be incorporated
into regular classroom activities.
Strategies for Enhancing Memory and Comprehension
Representational Imagery. One of the most common and useful methods of remembering information is to use mental imagery. It can be used for remembering facts (e.g., During winter, the snowshoe hare turns white in winter) and with extended prose (such as a description of a mechanical device, a geographical location, or a scene in a novel). Developmentally, while older students seem to benefit from imagery, it has been shown that students as young as eight (grade three) can benefit from generating their own imagery. However, providing the illustration for younger children (K-2) will aid memory, as will the use of motor activity (play). Currently, I am investigating the possibility of teaching young primary students to generate their own images to enhance memory for sentences.
Imagery is thought to enhance memory for two reasons. The first explanation cites Paivio's dual coding theory. In dual coding theory, memory consists of two separate memory systems. One system is a verbal system used for representing and thinking with language. The second system is a non-verbal system for representing and thinking with non-verbal information like images. When information is received (such as reading or hearing words) either or both systems may be activated. A word or sentence becomes stored in either a verbal or non-verbal representation, or both. If the information is encoded in both verbal and non-verbal from, the likelihood of memory for that information increases. By generating images of verbal information, including illustrations with text (pictures or mental images), or by elaborating upon illustrations with explanations, the likelihood is increased that both systems are activated, that information is encoded in verbal and non-verbal form, and that memory is enhanced.
In addition to dual coding theory, a second explanation for the
effectiveness of imagery cites Wittrock's generative theory. In making
a mental image of some information, the student must identify important
ideas and relate those ideas. That is, the image contains both the
concepts to be learned and the relationships between those concepts.
There are two steps in using mental imagery:
A second example comes from the Grade 5 social studies text. In discussing the life of the Inuit, it states that "During the winter, the hunters would go out onto the ice to hunt walrus, polar bears, and sea birds." In using imagery to remember this fact, the student might generate an image of an Inuit hunter on ice with a polar bear, walrus, and sea bird. A good image would contain the Inuit hunter interacting with a polar bear, walrus, and sea bird.
Elaborative interrogation. Elaborative interrogation is a simple strategy to enhance memory for facts. The strategy involves reading a fact to-be-remembered, asking Why would that be true?, and then trying to generate an answer. Its primary use seems to be enhancing memory for important facts that need to be remembered, such as facts about animals, countries, provinces, and gender differences. For example, the student might read a fact such as During winter, the snowshoe hare turns white in colour. To use elaborative interrogation to remember this fact, the student would then ask himself or herself Why would the snowshoe hare turn white in colour?, and then try to answer the question.
To date, the explanation for the effectiveness of the strategy has been prior knowledge activation. To use this strategy, students must generate an elaboration which clarifies the relationship between the subject of the sentence (snowshoe hare) and the predicate (turns white in winter). That clarifying relationship is drawn from memory and is used to strengthen the relationship between the subject and predicate. However, it is not clear what prior knowledge is needed. Some researchers suggest that knowledge about the subject (such as the animal or country the fact is about) is required. Others seem to suggest that content specific knowledge is less important but that abstract knowledge in the form of rules or principles is important. For example, consider the act The people of Morintha come from many different cultural and ethic backgrounds. The first group of researchers suggest that knowledge about Morintha is needed for elaborative interrogation to be effective. The second group suggest that more general knowledge is needed, such as knowledge that liberal immigration policies lead to increased immigration or that strong economic prosperity leads to high immigration.
Developmentally, the strategy has been demonstrated to work with students as young as grade 4. However, the strategy seems to increase in power as the students get older. Only one study has been published in which an attempt was made to assess the benefits of elaborative interrogation with students younger than grade four. The results reported in that study suggested that elaborative interrogation did not enhance memory for facts in young children. However, given the lack of research such conclusions seem weak. I would hypothesize that if young children are able to generate an answer to the why question they will benefit. The potential pitfall in using this strategy with young children is that they may not possess enough prior knowledge to generate an answer to the why question.
Elaborative interrogation is a fairly straightforward strategy
and involves three steps:
1) Read the fact to be remembered
In general, research to this point suggests the answer generated to the question is not important, but it is important that the student generate a reasonable answer.
As a second example consider a act from the Grade 5 social studies text which states that "During the winter, the hunters would go out onto the ice to hunt walrus, polar bears, and sea birds." After reading this fact, a student using elaborative interrogation would turn that fact into a why question (Why would the hunters go out onto the ice to hunt walrus, polar bears, and sea birds?) Finally, the students would try to answer that question (because that's where the animals are living and the hunter would need to go out on the ice to find them).
Acronyms. An acronym is a series of letters that spell a word (or something like a word) with each letter in the acronym representing another word. They are commonplace in everyday life - MUN, USA. For example, to remember the names of the great lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior), the first letter of each name can be arranged to form the acronym HOMES. By thinking of HOMES, the student is able to remember the names of the great lakes.
A variation on the letter acronym is the acronymic sentence. Instead of arranging the letters to spell a word, the letters are used as the first letters of words in sentences. For example, the lines on the treble clef are used for the notes EGBDF. To remember those notes, the sentence Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge can be created.
Acronyms are useful when a small number of grouped items need to be remembered. For example, if the student needs to remember the names of the 13 states in the New England colony, or the names of famous scientists who made substantial contributions, an acronym is useful.
Acronyms work for two reasons. First, they help reduce a large amount of information into a small amount of information. Second, and more importantly, they help impose an organization on information that enhances retrieval of information. Each letter serves as a cue to remember some other piece of information. For example, what are the names of the great lakes? Think of HOMES - H stands for Huron, 0 stands for Ontario, and so on. The acronym provides a systematic way of enhancing retrieval. Third, and equally important, the acronym helps the student transform and relate new information into something familiar. The unfamiliar names of the lakes are transformed into a familiar word.
To create an acronymic sentence, the student needs to carry out
1. List the names or words to be remembered.
Very V Viking
The keyword method might work for several reasons. First, there is an imagery component involved - students are required to generate an image, and that will tend to enhance memory. Second, and more importantly, the learner transforms the material (deep processing) by creating a similar sounding word. This creates a link between the new information and something familiar. Retrieval of the word-definition or object-attribute is enhanced by being associated with a readily remembered, familiar word.
Developmentally, elementary aged children are able to benefit
from the use of the keyword method. However, research has shown that
when the keyword and interactive image are provided for young children
(K-3), memory is enhanced. Research has also demonstrated that a
sentence generation variation of the keyword method can be successfully
used by students as young as three years of age. In this variation,
students are given the new word and the keyword, and asked to generate
a sentence which describes the definition of the new word interacting with
the keyword. For example, the young child would be told that carta
means letter, and that a good keyword that sounds like carta is
cart. Students would then be asked to make up a sentence relating
cart to letter, such The mail was delivered in a cart.
To use the keyword method, students need to carry out three steps:
antler sounds like ant a picture of a dead ant with an arrow stuck in him.
bolter sounds like bolt a picture of a machine sifting bolts.
jarvey sounds like jar a picture of a driver on a carriage carrying jars.
In the context of the grade five social studies curriculum, the keyword method could be used to remember the names of William Cormack and Mina Hubbard who were the first Europeans to cross Newfoundland. To remember that Cormack and Hubbard walked across Newfoundland, the student would need to change the name to a similar sounding word then generate an interactive image:
Cormack sounds like doormat a picture of an explorer waling over a doormat.
Hubbard sounds like cupboard a picture of a male explorer carrying a cupboard.
Summarizing. Often students are required to read prose and remember information contained in that prose. Aside from remembering bits and pieces of information scattered throughout the text, students need to remember themes and main ideas. Summarization is one strategy that has been demonstrated to enhance memory for main ideas. In summarization, students read a section of prose (typically a paragraph) and then write a sentence that describes what that prose was about. Research has demonstrated that summarization can improve memory for prose by about 33%.
As a strategy, summarization should be effective for two reasons.
First, the act of summarizing requires students to attend to important
concepts within the text and then generate meaningful relationships between
those concepts. Students must distinguish important information from
unimportant, and state how important concepts are related to each other.
Second, because summarizing requires students to express the main ideas
in their own words, there is a transformation or recoding process involved
(deep processing) in which students mentally manipulate the information.
Without this transformation, the task is reduced to a form of rehearsal
in which students merely copy out the main idea. Subsequently, learning
The generation of a summary involves three important steps:
A an example, consider the following paragraph:
To create a summary of this paragraph, the student would need to read the paragraph and identify the main idea. Here, the main idea is that animals have horns which they use for protection. A summary sentence might be something like Many animals, such elk, moose, goats, cows, and rhinoceros use their horns for protection from enemies.
In the context of the social studies curriculum, one paragraph
in the textbook is:
Each spring, as the ice drifts south along the Labrador coast, it brings with it great herds of seals. The early Inuit of Labrador and the Indians of Newfoundland depended upon the seals to live. After the long winter, the animals provided them with meat, oil and clothing. The Europeans who first came to the area also quickly learned how valuable seals could be.
Concept mapping. Concept mapping (also called webbing, concept webbing, mind-mapping, or semantic networking) is an effective strategy for helping students develop a conceptual understanding of complex prose. In concept mapping, the student is required to identify important concepts and relate those concepts to each other (see Figure 1). The strategy may be used in almost any content domain, including science, social studies, mathematics, and physical education. It can be used whenever students are studying passages with a large number of concepts and they need to see how important ideas relate to each other. Developmentally, the concept map has been successfully used with students in all grade levels (1 - 12).
The concept map is an effective strategy for two reasons.
First, and most importantly, it requires students to identify important
concepts and the relationships between those concepts. By creating
a concept map, students are organizing the ideas in their minds to create
a cognitive representation of the to-be-learned ideas. It makes them
mentally active. Second, it creates a visually representation of
the ideas. The relationships are represented in a visual display
(the map), which may be used to enhance retrieval of ideas in the map.
And dual-coding theory suggests that verbal and visual representations
will enhance memory of information to be learned.
To create a concept map, students need to do three things:
Teeth are used for protection by many animals. Dogs and wolves have long, sharp teeth with which to defend themselves from enemies. Rats, woodchucks, mink and weasels also have sharp teeth. These animals use teeth in attacking enemies. The teeth of some animals have developed into large tusks. Elephants and boars have tusks which are feared by their enemies.
To use the concept mapping strategy for learning ideas in these paragraphs, the student must read the paragraph and identify important ideas. This would take the form of identifying concepts:
- horns - goats - teeth - woodchucks - elephants butting, throwing -
Having listed the important concepts, the next two steps are to
arrange the concepts such that concepts that are related are closer together,
and to draw a line between concepts that are related (See Figure 2).
Using Strategies within the Classroom Context
The six strategies outlined in the previous section can be utilized in the classroom in two ways: altering teacher behaviour, and altering student behaviour. By altering teacher behaviour, I mean that teachers can provide prompts, hints, directive questions, and assignments that are intended to make students think in a strategic way, if they perform the required task. By altering student behaviour I mean to teach students how to use strategies, when to use them, and what they are for. I mean to alter students' study habits and the way they learn material.
Teacher behaviour. The first method of incorporating the learning strategies into the classroom instruction is to alter the teacher's behaviour by having the teacher design their lessons according to generative principles. By this I mean that teachers behave in a purposeful manner with the intent of directinq or guiding students' cognition. While many teachers may do this already, careful thought to how teachers' actions influence students' thinking can lead to more productive use of classtime. There are three ways teachers can influence students' thoughts.
First, the teacher provides the content in a form that promotes strategic
processing. That is, the teacher provides illustrations to promote
imagery, suggests a mnemonic for remembering some piece of information,
or the teacher provides a concept map to clarify chapter content.
For example, in teaching the students about the early explorers of Newfoundland,
the teacher might say to the students something like the following:
T: "Okay, so the explorers we are going to learn about are the Vikings, Columbus, Cabot, Cortes-Real, Fernandez, Gilbert, and Cartier. One way to remember these names is to think of the sentence Very Cool Cats Can Find Great Cars. The V in Very stands for Vikings, the C in Cool stands for Columbus, the C in Cats stands for Cabot, the C in Can stands for Cortes-Real, the F in Find stands for Fernandez, the G in Great stands for Gilbert, and the C in Cars stand for Cartier."
T: Now we are going to start our study of some of the first explorers to Newfoundland. What I would like you to do first is make a list of the explorers. (Students then make a list containing Vikings, Columbus, Cabot, Cortes-Real, Fernandez, Gilbert, and Cartier.)
While lectures and tasks are two obvious ways of guiding student thinking, a more subtle way is through the use of teacher comments. During the course of classroom activity, the teacher can prompt students to engage in strategic activity. Statements like When you are reading, don't forget to make a picture in your head. That will help you remember. or Did you find something important to remember? Don't forget to turn it into a why question, or make a picture of it in your head! or Try to make your own acronym to remember the names of the explorers! will prompt students to engage in strategic behaviour. To illustrate the power of teacher comments consider that much of the research on strategy use involved nothing more than prompting students o engage in the strategy (e.g. Make a picture of that in your head.), and yet gains in achievement were obtained.
Student behaviour. Altering student behaviour refers to teaching students how to use strategies for improving their learning. Several methods of instruction have been devised to help students become more strategic. These include direct instruction, self-instruction, and reciprocal instruction. Very briefly, direct instruction involves directly and explicitly teaching the strategies. The instruction begins with the teacher explaining the strategy to the student, followed by a demonstration of how the strategy works (teacher modelling). This instruction is followed by guided practice with feedback in which the student practices the steps of the strategy under the guidance of the teacher which is faded to the point where the student is able to independently utilize the strategy.
Self-instruction follows a sequence similar to that of direct instruction: explanation, guided practice, and independent practice. However, unlike direct instruction, self-instruction utilizes a think aloud process in which the adult verbalizes his/her thoughts as he/she tries to learn some material or solve a problem. This is followed by student verbalization of the steps with adult guidance, followed by overt independent practice which is faded to a whisper and then to covert practice. In recent research, Peggy Wheeler (MacDonald Drive Elementary School in St. John's) and I reported that the use of self-instruction in math had a positive gain on students' motivation or solving math problems. We are continuing this research and are examining the potential of self-instruction for teaching a variety of strategies across the curriculum for enhancing motivation.
Reciprocal teaching refers to a form of small group instruction in which the teacher and the students take turns explaining and modelling the strategies while trying to learn some content. In Brown and Palincsar's formulation of reciprocal teaching, the lesson consists of four activities: summarizing, question generating, clarifying, and predicting. The purpose of reciprocal teaching is to engage students in a dialogue, through which the teacher (and expert peers) explain and model the strategies. While reciprocal teaching was originally designed to improve reading comprehension, its use with other strategies should yield positive results.
Ultimately, maximum learning gains are realized when students
spontaneously engage in appropriate strategy use. This is achieved
when students know the steps of strategy (how to use it), what the strategy
is for, when to use it, and why it is important to use strategies.
Research has suggested that differences in good and poor learners are explainable
in these terms. Good learners have a repertoire of strategies at
their disposal, know how to choose a strategy according to task demands,
monitor the use of the strategy, and believe that using strategies helps
them learn. In contrast, poor learners often do not possess a repertoire
of strategies (they often rely solely on rehearsal, for example), do not
know when to use different strategies, are often unaware of their lack
of understanding, and believe that ability (or inability) is the factor
responsible for learning. Given these important findings, the implications
suggest that teachers not only need to teach students various strategies
for enhancing learning but also need to explain to students why these strategies
are important, and when you use them.
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