Joanne Baird Giordano

This chapter is one section of a five-part series on academic literacy strategies:
  1. A Quick Introduction to College Learning Strategies
  2. General Academic Literacy and Disciplinary Literacy
  3. Reading for Understanding
  4. Reading to Learn and Remember
  5. Adapting to Disciplinary Literacy Conventions




A strategy is a plan of action that an individual or group uses to achieve a goal. Strategies provide a framework (or structure) for making decisions, taking action, self-assessing, and adapting or changing behavior. As you work toward reaching your individual educational goals, you will develop a variety of different academic literacy strategies for different areas of college learning, including reading, writing, studying for tests, taking tests, finding information, conducting original research, completing quantitative (math) tasks, and using technology as a tool for learning. This article provides an overview of concepts that can help students think about and begin to strengthen the strategies that they use for learning.



Strategic learning means making decisions and purposefully taking action to increase academic success or achieve an educational goal. Strategic learning in college includes

  • taking an active role in the learning process
  • learning how to learn and study at an advanced level
  • using individual approaches to learning and adapting them to different types of courses and assignments
  • applying knowledge about learning for an academic purpose
  • self-assessing, monitoring, and self-regulating (controlling) learning



College learning strategies are methods that help students improve their learning and academic success. They are conscious, intentional techniques that students use to adapt how they learn based on the purpose and requirements of an academic task in a specific learning situation.

Here are some examples of general college-level learning strategies:

  • spacing out study sessions over time
  • previewing a chapter before reading it
  • using words in bold in a textbook to help identify important concepts
  • creating flashcards to take notes from reading to use while practicing for an exam
  • writing notes in the margins of a reading assignment to record ideas for an essay
  • organizing ideas for a writing assignment through outlining or prewriting



For most situations, learning strategies should be both effective and efficient. An effective learning strategy works for its intended purpose, and students are successful when they use it in a course. An efficient learning strategy doesn’t take too much time or resources. Some strategies are effective but not efficient. They might work, but students typically don’t have enough time to use them. For example, memory tricks like inventing songs to memorize facts or vocabulary might help some students remember information, but they are time consuming to create. Other strategies are quick and efficient but ineffective, including skimming through a textbook chapter without reading it, cramming for an exam, and highlighting or underlining without note taking. In contrast, annotating a textbook by taking notes directly in the margins of a book or handout is an example of a learning strategy that is both effective and efficient. Students can easily take notes while reading and then use those notes to find information later while studying for an exam.



Metacognition is a concept that describes thinking about thinking. In “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing,” three national organizations for writing teachers define metacognition as “the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge” (CWPA, NCTE, and NWP 5). Metacognition is an important part of using effective learning strategies. As a college student, you need to build on your previous experiences to develop an awareness of your own learning processes. You also need to monitor (or pay attention to) and reflect on the learning strategies that you use for each course.



Perhaps the most important part of using effective learning strategies is figuring out what works (and does not work) for a particular field of study, course, assignment, and learning task. Educational researchers Melinda Burchard and Peter Swerdzewski explain that “learning strategies are not tricks or shortcuts; instead, strategic learning focuses on matching specific approaches, processes or strategies to the individual’s learning needs.” By noticing and evaluating (self-assessing) how you learn in specific situations, you will strengthen your ability to adapt your learning strategies based on the requirements and purposes of different academic tasks.

Learning Strategies: Questions for Reflection and Writing

  1. Based on your own experience, what strategies have been most effective in helping you learn? Why did those strategies work for you?
  2. What strategies have been the most efficient in helping you reduce the time that it takes to study? Why did those strategies work for you?
  3. Which learning strategies have worked for you in more than one type of course and with different types of academic tasks? Which learning strategies are unique to a specific type of course or assignment?
  4. How might you apply your previous experiences with learning strategies to the courses that you are currently taking?

Activity: Exploring Metacognition

Do informal research to look up definitions and examples of metacognition in the learning processes. You might also look up information about cognition and cognitive processes. What did you learn about strategies for monitoring (paying attention to) your own learning? What did you learn about metacognition that you might apply to your work as a college reader and writer?


[Continue to the next section: “General Academic Literacy and Disciplinary Literacy.”]


Resources for Further Study

  • Bain, Ken. What The Best College Students Do. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012.
  • Chick, Nancy.  “Metacognition.” Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and Learning.
  • Dartmouth Academic Skills Center, “Learning Strategies.”


Works Cited

Burchard, Melinda S. and Peter Swerdzewski. “Learning Effectiveness of a Strategic Learning Course.” Journal of College Reading and Learning, vol. 40, no.1, 2009, pp.14-34.

Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English, and National Writing Project. Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. CWPA, NCTE, and NWP, 2011.


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