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Learning How to Learn:
A Critical Component of Academic Success

By Debbie Grosser, M.Ed.

May/June 2014

Once upon a time there was a middle-school student who received average to above-average grades and appeared to learn well. When the student entered high school, the academic rigor, amount of independent work, and time required to study increased, and his grades dropped dramatically. In discussing his poor performance with the student, his teacher found that he did not know how to study or how to best approach the learning demands of high school. Specifically, the student did not attend to how he learned best, how to regulate his efforts towards success, and how to reflect upon his own learning.  

This is not an uncommon story.  For many students, particularly those with disabilities, the impact is felt much earlier.  The development of study strategies and metacognition is an often-neglected part of classroom instruction. These tools are critical for student learning by fostering student success through self-direction and self-awareness (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002).  Unfortunately, students with disabilities often lack awareness of the strategies that enhance their learning and academic success (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002; Rooney, 2010). By teaching study strategies, teachers support students to become “independent, efficient learners” (Rooney, 2010, p. 1).

Metacognition refers to an awareness of one’s own learning and thinking processes (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002; Hattie, 2009).  Metacognition allows students to self-assess, set goals, plan, implement, monitor, and evaluate their study habits (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002). Metacognitive strategies include use of study strategies, self-verbalization, self-questioning, and self-regulation. “Metacognitive activities can include planning how to approach a given learning task, evaluating progress, and monitoring comprehension” (Hattie, 2009, p. 188).

Students with disabilities require direct instruction followed by feedback and repeated practice in order to develop metacognitive awareness and learn effective study strategies and that support learning (Rooney, 2010).  Rooney suggests using strategies that are “simple, concrete, and efficient,” further noting that “teaching clear, specific, evidence-based strategies is necessary to enable students to access the general education curriculum” (p. 1).

Referring to study strategies as study skills strategies, the IRIS Center for Training Enhancements (2013) offers a two-part module, including resources, links, and information, entitled Study Skills Strategies: Foundations for Effectively Teaching Study Skills. The IRIS Center identifies four general categories of critical study strategies: (a) processing information; (b) retaining and recalling information; (c) organizing materials and managing time; and (d) self-regulation: selecting, monitoring, and using strategies. Examples of strategies that fit these categories are noted in the chart below.

Examples of Study Strategies
Category Strategy Example
Processing Information Graphic organizers Cause and effect - fishbone diagram
(The Iris Center, 2013)
Comprehension strategies Activating prior knowledge – ask students to think about what they know, preview the text, and make predictions
Reading and recalling information Mnemonics

First letter strategies
(The Iris Center, 2013)

Note taking

Arrange to take notes
Write quickly
Apply cues
Review notes
Edit notes

(The Iris Center, 2013)
Organizing materials and managing time Mnemonic Students develop a mnemonic to help remember the steps they need to take to stay organized; areas of concern: desk or locker, notebooks or binders, class materials
Calendars and task management tools Click on the link to access the article Featured Applications: Calendars and Task Management Tools
Self-regulation: selecting, monitoring, and using strategies Checklists, self-monitoring worksheets, or logs See homework monitoring chart below
Goal setting Click on the link to access the article Featured Apps: Tools for Establishing Goals and Tracking Progress

Homework Monitoring Chart

Students place an “x” on each class in which they have assigned homework, and color in when completed.  The chart may be modified to include class names or pictures (Rooney, 2010). 

            1                        2                        3                        4                       5                        6           
1 2 3 4 5 6
1 2 3 4 5 6
1 2 3 4 5 6
1 2 3 4 5 6

Development of study strategies and metacognitive awareness is critical to academic success. Additionally, when study strategies are taught in the context of the specific content that is being taught in the general education classroom, they are more effective (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002). Direct instruction in using these strategies is particularly important for students with disabilities, who often demonstrate challenges in these areas.

Additional resources:


Gettinger, M., & Seibert, J. K. (2002). Contributions of study skills to academic competence. School Psychology Review, 31(3), 350-365. 

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge.

The IRIS Center for Training Enhancements. (2013). Study skills strategies (Part 1 and 2): Foundations for effectively teaching study skills. Retrieved from

Rooney, K. J. (2010). Strategies for learning: Empowering students for success, grades 9 -12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.