Learning Strategies for Students
It is no secret that millions of students every year are falling behind or out of school. Kids get left out or pushed aside by a learning system poorly adapted to their needs or situation. Teachers are not paid enough and do not receive the respect they once did, and still deserve, for their crucial work.
The best end up discovering how to manage a classroom while also imparting key knowledge to future generations by adopting a variety of learning strategies. The worst just stop caring. But there is no reason not to get a head start, and that is what you will find here.
We will break down many of the most successful and impactful learning strategies that teachers have spent years developing. Not only will you find learning strategies that can be applied to any and every class, from elementary school on up to high school and beyond, but also specific learning strategies for students with learning disabilities like dyslexia, ADHD, or autism.
What are learning strategies?
Experienced teachers are welcome to skip this section, but we want to be as accessible and first-time-teacher friendly as possible.
Simply put, learning strategies are techniques and methods of teaching and delivering the lesson which improves the effectiveness of the classroom. By improving retention, attention, reflection, or comprehension, these techniques focus on the educational side of the classroom. These are NOT techniques for improving discipline, behavior, or attitude, though implementing them can help avoid disconnection and disruption.
This is particularly true with strategies designed to accommodate students with learning disabilities. These students are more likely to be left out or behind by traditional teaching techniques, and we will discuss learning strategies specifically designed to help them improve their learning experience.
Before we dive into those specific cases, however, let us first take a look at some general learning strategies that can easily, and effectively, be built into your classroom.
Effective Learning Strategies for Students
Whether you are teaching in a classroom for the first time, trying to adapt to online learning, or even a seasoned teacher with decades of classroom experience under their belt, here are some simple, yet powerful, learning strategies to incorporate into your lesson plans and classroom behavior.
Break Tasks Into Small Steps
Nothing turns off the light in a student’s eyes like 45 minutes of lecture. You will lose their attention, but most importantly, they will learn very little. Our brains are poorly adapted to focusing on a single topic or behavior for lengthy periods (especially as children), and classrooms are no exception.
Similarly, if you hand a student a lengthy assignment due in two weeks with only a description of the final product desired, many will fail miserably as they leave it for the last minute, fail to plan for the steps required or try to skip many in their haste or ignorance. Not only is this bad for their final grade, but it means they have learned significantly less than they should have from the assignment.
Both are examples of a common problem that can be solved rather simply by breaking tasks down into smaller steps. While doing this optimally to balance between too much and too little hand-holding is a skill that takes teachers years to perfect, any student can tell the difference between a teacher who does, and does not, try to implement this learning strategy.
Make clear the steps your students will need to take, set intermediate objectives, vary the tasks and styles of learning as you do, and you will see improvements in both attention and retention.
Space Out Your Study Over Time
Just as importantly, once you have covered a topic, do not abandon it forever. Return to it throughout the lesson, month, and even year.
One of the most common problems for students, at every level of education, is learning something only to forget it for lack of use. By revisiting a topic, circling back to it, and connecting and/or building on it in future lessons and teaching materials (quizzes, homework, even tests!) students are far more likely not just to remember it, but to truly understand it.
Teaching courses and academics will often call this interleaving, which means mixing topics and types of practice. While spreading a topic out over time is just one component of interleaving, when combined with some other strategies on this list, you will find yourself naturally using interleaving already. The results will speak for themselves.
Combine Words and Visuals
Any textbook worth its weight shows that words alone do not make for an effective lesson. Even at the highest levels of learning, textbooks include visuals, pictures, graphs, charts, or diagrams to help connect ideas or organize concepts. This is often referred to in the literature as ‘dual coding’.
By weaving visuals into your teaching, you will find students more receptive, attentive, and better able to engage with the material. Visuals are not just effective for keeping the mind engaged, though that does help, but also work by showing information in different ways. Visuals are particularly well adapted for: explaining things in context (labeled pictures), exploring connections (diagrams and flow charts), and drawing out comparisons and representations of abstract concepts or numbers (graphs, etc).
For the very best results from this learning strategy, take it a step further by making the combination of words and visuals an active task, not a passive one. Get the students to make the graphs, label the pictures, or even draw diagrams themselves. Especially because by doing so, you will be able to connect with different types of learners in your classroom.
Some will do just fine reading or listening, but others will learn best from seeing, interacting, or doing, and the best learning strategies take those students into consideration as well.
Use Multiple Examples
Nothing undercuts learning quite so much as an inability to connect with the information. Except perhaps an inability to connect it with other information or context. Incorporating many, and varied, examples into your lessons will help solve both problems.
Students will be better able to identify with and approach information that is presented in relatable and comprehensible examples. Seeing a topic ‘in action’ in relevant and well-connected contexts will make it stick better as well as improve their ability to recognize and apply the information in new and unfamiliar contexts.
Using multiple examples is also, on a more fundamental level, also key to productive repetition. Regularly revisiting information and seeing it applied to new situations is simply a way to make the tried and tested learning strategy of repetition even stronger. Doing ten nearly identical math problems in a row might help you learn how to do it, but doing 5 different math problems that all call on the same skill while getting students to approach them differently and apply their skills to a new context will be far more effective.
And remember to interleave, by interspersing the examples with those that call on previously acquired skills and material, for even better results.
Use Elaboration (Describe Topics with Many Details)
Sometimes teachers will fall into a trap of oversimplifying. By trying to reduce a topic down to its most basic and easily mastered fundamentals, students can be deprived of important nuance, and more importantly, connection to other material.
Elaboration is the process of expanding on a topic by connecting it to previous ones, details from the students' lives, and other relevant and detailed examples. This learning strategy often revolves around helping students ask and answer the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. This helps prevent knowledge from being a mere passive momentary acquisition by promoting active engagement with the material and its incorporation into their genuine global understanding of the topic.
The very best elaboration strategies are those that place the students themselves in the teaching chair, by asking and answering each other elaboration-focused questions. As one helpful guide to the technique explains, these can start as simply as “what is another example of X” and evolve towards “how is X connected to Y”.
Information Retrieval Practice
Of all the learning strategies so far, perhaps the most fundamental is getting the students to retrieve information on their own. Having a student recall and put to use information is the best practice for ensuring that they will be able to later, and not just on an exam.
Fortunately, retrieval practice is a learning strategy that is already built into our education system, and most classrooms, at least to a certain extent. Quizzes, tests, homework, and even questions asked by a teacher or textbook are all designed to prompt and practice information retrieval. That said, there are still ways teachers can incorporate the strategy even more frequently and effectively in their day-to-day lesson planning.
Even mere brief daily quizzes can have a huge impact on the material learned, and the depth of knowledge acquired. Getting the students to quiz each other, perhaps using a tool like flashcards, can be especially important, as that helps them also take the role of assessing and providing feedback on each other’s answers.
Overall, these learning strategies are, individually, each a helpful tool for improving your students' performance and understanding of the material. Taken together they are the basic ingredients upon which the very best teachers built their own personal teaching styles and techniques by combining them in various unique, creative, and impactful ways.
That said, not every strategy is adapted to every student. In particular, students with learning disabilities will require special adaptation, focus, and different learning strategies tied to their needs and abilities.
Learning Strategies for Students with Learning Disabilities
Every teacher will have come up against a student who doesn't learn like the others. In an ideal situation, there will be the space and resources to give them the very best and most focused attention to compensate. Unfortunately, our education system is far from perfect and students with learning disabilities are often mixed in with the rest, and teachers are left to cope.
Whether this is already the case for you, or you as a teacher are concerned about what to do should you have such a student in your class in the future, this list is a great place to get started developing or altering learning strategies to fit their needs.
Unlike the general learning strategies discussed above, these may be tailored to specific students’ needs, and should not always be combined. An autistic student struggling with interpersonal interactions may need the exact opposite of a dyslexic student exhibiting signs of ADHD!
Learning strategies for students with Dyslexia
For the few who might not be familiar with it, Dyslexia is a not infrequent (estimated at 3-7% of the population, with up to 20% of people having some symptoms) learning disorder that impacts someone’s ability to read. It can negatively affect a student’s ability to understand what they read, read quickly, read out loud, spell, or have other similar symptoms. These symptoms can have a severe impact on their ability to learn in most classrooms, which is where dyslexia-focused learning strategies can come in handy.
Overall, try to allow for more time, and privilege less reading and writing where possible, as these students will more easily fall behind depending on the proportion of the lesson which focuses on either.
Many teachers and parents alike might be tempted to use punishment as a ‘motivator’ for students having trouble with reading in some form or another. This, unfortunately for everyone involved, does not work, and can be counter-productive.
Students who are punished for trying and failing will often simply stop trying (after all, if they are going to be punished for putting in effort…why bother!). Others may develop more severe learning blocks or dangerously low levels of self-esteem.
Too often we associate, especially among young children, reading ability with intelligence or academic potential. But dyslexic students prove to us again and again that this is not the case if we adapt to their needs and do not discourage them from learning.
Step By Step Instructions
The more reading there is to do, the more tiring it can become for dyslexic students, and the less likely they are to succeed. Break down any instructions into smaller chunks that can then be interspersed with the activity in question. Bullet points with short and clear sentences, or verbal instructions whenever possible, can help facilitate this even further.
This is also just a good habit to get into for all your students, as we saw above with the ‘break into smaller steps’ general learning strategy.
Step-by-step instructions also make it easier for non-dyslexic students to assist their friends or work partners, making it easier for dyslexic students to keep up and keep extra effort minimized.
Finding audio versions of textbooks, instructions and assignments can make a massive difference for dyslexic students. When all else fails, you can record your instructions, quizzes, or other materials you would normally hand out in a written form. These will make life and learning exponentially easier for dyslexic students and can be very helpful for your others students as well.
Voice recordings can also be an effective tool for varying learning styles and classroom pacing. You can also get students to read important sections of a book or instruction out-loud live during class, question each other on them, or find other ways to encourage students to engage out-loud with the material.
In college, my very first job on campus was reading economics textbooks and papers for a dyslexic student in my year. He not only became a close friend but went on to Stanford Business School and is raising millions for his start-up every year. It just goes to show that a little bit of learning accommodation can go a long, long, way.
Make Learning Fun
As so much of our learning experience tends to be focused on reading and writing, dyslexic students in particular are much more likely to tune out, burn out, or disengage. Since reading takes so much more effort and time for them, what might be a short fun assignment for most students, could become a ponderous, head-ache inducing, chore for them.
Most teachers will already be trying to bring fun into the classroom, but need to double-check their approach to make sure it is not leaving out the dyslexic students they may not even know they have. Where possible make activities that include movement, visuals, and auditory engagement, that will not isolate dyslexic students and will be just as effective at engaging them.
If you know a student has dyslexia, don’t hesitate to reach out to them or their parents to discover topics or examples they are particularly interested in. Once you do, you can weave them into your lessons to help counteract the extra efforts required and provide fun incentives to engage.
Break Down Learning
Most importantly of all, help the student avoid feeling overwhelmed. Learning disabilities aside, we all struggle when tasks loom large and imposing, not knowing where to get started or feeling like there is eternally too much to do can be a serious drag on motivation. Now imagine feeling like that almost each and every day at school and you might begin to understand your dyslexic students better.
Breaking down learning into manageable, attainable, and attractive steps and chunks can help take a big weight off their shoulders. This can apply to all students, of course, so don’t hold yourself back from incorporating it because you might not have any dyslexic students (chances are you do and just don’t know it!).
The bigger the task or the longer the assignment, the more intermediary steps you should consider outlining. This will not only help dyslexic students avoid feeling overwhelmed, but also give them a positive boost of confidence in their competence at each completed interval. This technique can also be quite impactful with students struggling with attention deficit disorders.
Learning Strategies for Students with ADHD
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder, or ADHD, is another common disorder that can severely impact a child’s ability to learn and succeed in our educational system. Designed for calm rooms full of attentive children, the traditional classroom can have a seriously negative impact on children (or adults!) struggling with attention deficit or hyperactivity. Additionally, they can have a negative impact on the classroom as well should you be unable to adapt and incorporate well their needs and symptoms into your learning strategy.
Additionally, ADHD is an umbrella term that includes a wide variety of symptoms and struggles, from trouble concentrating and focusing (inattentive presenting) to excessive energy and trouble staying still (hyperactive-impulsive presentation). As such, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, but rather a set of best practices that can help you to help them learn.
It might seem obvious, but limiting distractions for ADHD students can be an easy first step toward improving their learning experience. For example, try to sit them near the front of the class, preferably away from windows to keep as much of their field of view on the learning materials you are presenting.
Electronic devices like phones or computers which might help some students (see below) might be the bane of some ADHD students.
But do not try to remove all distractions either!
Some ‘distractions’ may help some ADHD students focus on learning. Doodling while taking notes and fiddling with a pen are examples of some innocuous physical activities that do not detract from their ability to listen and participate in learning. Trying to stop ALL distractions can make it harder for the student to focus, sit still, or remain calm.
Find the right balance for your student and do not hesitate to discuss it with them, their parents, or any psychologist they might have.
ADHD students are often particularly receptive to rewards and incentives. Try to include minor material (stickers, candy, points) or verbal (compliments, acknowledgements, etc.) rewards for good behavior and goal completion. This is particularly effective if you have already split the task or broken it down into steps, as you will find some hyperactive learners complete them faster as they switch easily between tasks and steps.
Rewards also help counteract the difficulties students with ADHD are likely to suffer, too often reprimanded, isolated, or misunderstood, positive reinforcement can go a long way towards restoring their taste for, and love of, learning.
Similarly, ADHD students are particularly likely to need frequent, if not constant, feedback. A reminder of what is happening, its purpose, and the next set of tasks, will help keep them focused, drawing them back into the moment.
Keep your tone excited and engaging where possible, to connect best with your easily disengaged students. Limit any negative feedback to gentle reminders and encouragements to return to the task or switch to a new one for hyperactive students. When possible, good feedback can help turn ADHD learners into leaders in the classroom, as they propel the lesson onward and keep the momentum high.
All students need breaks sometimes, but those with ADHD may require more frequent ones. Sitting and concentrating on a task for any duration can be tiring for anyone, but it can be torture for students with attention deficits. Far better to let them have breaks to de-focus and recover, in fact you may start to find that your ADHD students are the best at returning from breaks ready to learn as they switch tracks faster between topics and focuses. Similarly, encourage physical activity during breaks, particularly for hyperactive presenting ADHD students. Using up excess energy will help avoid disruptive restlessness and distraction. Not to mention it might be fun.
In fact, some of the most effective strategies will build physical ‘breaks’ into learning activities. Switching tracks between passive learning and active learning, while including movement and energy-expending elements in your lesson plans (for example having students shift between workstations around the room, or organize themselves or information in a physical space or under time limit) can help ADHD students learn better, and enjoy learning more.
When students are presented with too much information in too short a time, this can result in overloading. While the symptoms of cognitive overloading (fatigue, stress, and crucially a diminished ability to recall the information) are bad enough for neurotypical students, those already dealing with ADHD are even more likely to fall behind.
Make sure to pace learning, spread out the material, and gauge the energy and attention levels of your students, especially those with ADHD, to avoid overloading.
Learning Strategies for Students with Autism
Just like ADHD, autism is an inclusive term for a wide range of behaviors and conditions which together make up what we call Autism Spectrum Disorder. The developmental disorder ranges considerably in severity and symptoms but is generally characterized by difficulties with social interactions or emotional cues as well as repetitive behavioral patterns.
While some cases are so severe as to inhibit learning altogether, for the purposes of this article we will be focusing on ASD students who are able to interact with other students and learn in a school environment. These students will have a much easier time learning if teachers are familiar with their symptoms and adapt their learning strategies accordingly.
Begin Cultivating a Passion for Reading and Learning Early
Autism can make it difficult for parents who find expected and traditional methods of parenting difficult, less effective, or impossible. But one thing teachers and parents can unite on, is the importance of fostering a love of learning. One common symptom of ASD is obsessive or repetitive behaviors. If learning can be introduced as a positive focus and productive passion, not only will students with ASD show improved performance academically later on, but will be blessed with a lifelong source of joy.
A particularly effective strategy for developing this passion for learning is to focus early on reading. Reading offers a safe space for ASD children, free of the tiring or confusing demands of social interactions, where they can nevertheless continue to learn and absorb important information passively or actively about the world they live in. As a result, early ASD readers will often become passionate and dedicated lifelong learners.
Choose Intellectually Stimulating Reading Material Connected to Subjects of Interest
While a parent of an ADHD child might have to focus on new, entertaining, and engaging reading to keep their child interested, ASD students are far more likely to become detached or disinterested if what they are reading is not sufficiently stimulating, or connected to a subject they are already invested in.
As we mentioned, patterns of repetitive behavior and single-minded ‘obsessions’ among ASD students are common. Rather than discourage or punish these passions, teachers should take advantage of them. Choose resources, reading material, and examples that discuss those focal topics. In doing so you will both better find and keep the child’s attention, but also nourish their desire and interest in learning overall.
Talk About “Figurative” and “Metaphorical” Meanings Behind or Between the Lines in Reading
One of the most consistent struggles for students across the autism spectrum is to grasp abstract or emotional topics and social constructions. They consistently have difficulty understanding and acting on social cues and implicitly communicating information that most of us take for granted. Reading materials often provide many and varied examples of exactly the kinds of cues and social interactions these students struggle with. Yet they do so without many of the negative consequences real-world experiences invariably include. Strong teachers will be able to seize and navigate these examples to help ASD students slowly learn to recognize and adapt to these behaviors.
Teachers should not be surprised to see them do, and respond better to, clinically explained and examined examples that break down these interactions. Highly emotional language, frustration, or hammered repetition of them are less likely to produce positive results, and may even be counterproductive.
Communicate with Parents and Establish Technical Literacy
These ASD-focused learning strategies all work better if they are put in place both at home and in the classroom. Close collaboration between parents and teachers is, if anything, even more, crucial to building the best possible learning environments for them.
Share information about passions and interests, this will help both environments keep up with and maintain the child’s interests and reading habits. Similarly, establishing literacy with technology can allow for independent learning, reading in different environments, and an easy tool for productive and practical isolation can have a strong positive impact on ASD students.
Our education systems often leave children behind. But they also often leave teachers behind as well. Too often you are thrust into the classroom unprepared, without the knowledge and resources to adapt to the needs of your students.
Preparing a course can be daunting, and teachers will need extensive practice to master the subtle art of teaching at any and every level of our education system. Each of the strategies presented here, however, will provide stepping stones towards that goal. Just as Remnote offers teachers, and anyone looking to foster lifelong learning, a powerful tool for organizing their lesson plans or course notes.