Effects of Learning Skills Interventions on Student Learning: A meta-analysis Review of Educational Research

A review of: John Hattie, John Biggs and Nola Purdie (1996) Effects of Learning Skills Interventions on Student Learning: A meta-analysis Review of Educational Research Vol 66: 2 (99-136)

This month we focus on a paper by John Hattie and colleagues, whose aim was to identify the key features of successful study skills interventions. The review was a study of studies (meta-analysis), building on findings from of over 50 pieces of research that aimed to improve student performance by focusing on learning or study skills. It was conducted by leading experts in the international field and is a highly influential review, which colours our thinking about how best to impart learning dispositions to pupils in a way that will ‘stick’ or ‘transfer’ from one classroom to another or, indeed, from the classroom to the world outside of school, college, or university. Findings support the recommendation that training (unless for simple mnemonic performance only) should be given in context, should use tasks and strategies from within the same domain as the strategies will be utilised in by students, and should promote high levels of learner activity and metacognitive awareness.

Metalearning, or ‘learning about learning’ is one of the Expansive Education Network’s core areas of interest and is broader than metacognition (thinking about thinking) because it encompasses other aspects of learning beyond thinking: for example, context, goals, feelings, and the social aspects of learning.

We know that learners who really understand the processes of learning develop learning dispositions more successfully.

Fifty years of research in the area of metalearning from scientists such as Robert Sternberg, John Flavell, Chris Watkins, Carol Dweck, and David Perkins has taught us that learners who really understand the processes of learning develop learning dispositions more successfully. They are more able to think through a problem; more able to cope with uncertainty; more able to formulate fruitful questions; more willing to take a risk. Not only this, but they do better in examinations as a result.

This month’s paper reports that in an effort to shine light onto the process of learning, a large number of study skills interventions have been designed and evaluated by researchers, and tried out by teachers, in an effort to improve learning by enhancing performance in one of three areas that go beyond immediate content learning:

  •  cognitive                    – developing a particular task-related skill (for example summarizing or note taking)
  • metacognitive          – focusing on the self-management of learning (for example planning or self-reviewing)
  •  affective                     – improving non-cognitive aspects (such as motivation or optimism)

In terms of the outcomes that study skills interventions aimed to achieve, interventions fell into four camps:

  • those that aimed to change one thing (examples were using a mnemonic, underlining, or anxiety reduction);
  • those that aimed to change a few things, but outside of a particular subject context, and without consideration of metacognition (such as typical study skills packages);
  • those that aimed to change one thing but in context, and with due consideration to metacognition (for example trying to re-train the way pupils attributed success and failure in order to improve their arithmetic skills); and
  • one intervention identified in the study aimed to transfer the learning from the previous type of intervention to a new domain.

Single cognitive skills – typically using mnemonics

When pupils were required to remember ‘procedures, formulas, facts, or lists’, the use of highly directive heuristics ‘(“this is the rule, just follow it”)’ and mnemonics (a classic example being ‘ROYGBIV’ for the colours of the rainbow) was said to be ‘highly effective with virtually all students’, allowing ‘simple retention of accurate detail’. Although designed to facilitate neither understanding, nor transfer of learning to a new context, the research found that the benefit of directive training like mnemonics was ‘as good as any figure reported for teaching methods elsewhere’.

Broad study skills – stand alone, conventional programmes

Interventions looking at a range of study skills tended to have the same sort of degree of effectiveness as mnemonics training, particularly when used on younger students, and particularly with low-cognitive-level tasks.  Bolt-on lessons or ‘study skills’ modules that pupils might experience outside of normal lessons and that taught an ‘all-purpose package of portable skills’ were less effective. Nevertheless, the paper found that the major effect on study skills teaching was upon pupils’ attitudes to their studies, rather than upon performance and that, on the whole, study skills teaching was beneficial to students.

Metacognitive skills – in lesson context

Study skills teaching should be conducted in the lesson or subject area in which pupils are going to use it.

Study skills training was highly effective when it selected strategies appropriate to the material being taught. This enabled students to apply it to that same context; an example of ‘near transfer’. For example, as a strategy to improve comprehension, looking through a passage of text with the purpose of finding its main argument is useful to the biology student who has been shown how to use this strategy when reading a scientific text. He will be able to use this strategy more successfully in biology than in another subject. That is, until he is taught to apply the same thinking to a piece of historical narrative, autobiographical account, or company report. This ‘far transfer’ requires deeper subject understanding, and certainly an understanding of ‘why’ not just ‘how’. The importance of linking teaching strategy to context was the same regardless of whether the training aimed to improve cognitive, metacognitive, or affect outcomes. This sort of training was successful for younger and older students, and at all ability levels, although particularly so for high-ability, older students.

Implications for educators

There are several important implications for educators:

  • Skills training need not be time consuming. Content is learned through using study skills. As students practise picking out key arguments in a passage, for example, they are picking up key learning points.
  • When study skills training is intended for anything other than ‘simple mnemonic performance’ it should be conducted in the lesson or subject ‘context’ for which it is intended. Note-taking in biology will look different from note taking in business studies, for example, and transfer from one area to another is exceptional.
  •  Tasks and examples used in teaching the study skills should be relevant to the subject being studied and specific to the topic. A number of new skills can be combined and practised according to the demands of a real class situation. Prior to an assignment a teacher might spend some time teaching essay planning, research skills, picking out key points, constructing an argument, and referencing. This works best when taught with the real essay content in mind. The study skills teaching should be integrated into the scheme of work and taught so that the learner is actively ‘having a go’, not just reading notes about ‘how to’.
  • Teaching should encourage metacognitive awareness in learners as part of its delivery. Studies that showed the highest success rates featured students thinking about their learning, self-regulating it, setting their own goals and evaluating.
  • To help students ‘transfer’ their learning across subject domains, they need to understand not just ‘what’ but ‘why’ they are learning particular skills.
  •  A key study skill is in the ‘affective’ skills category: ‘attribution’. Teaching students to attribute their weaknesses to things they have control over rather than to ‘cleverness’ has a massive impact upon success. Teacher use of language is powerful in this regard.

For those expansive educators interested in developing their own action research into this area, this important paper provides clear broad guidance about what works best. An action research project might thus focus on specific metacognitive or affective performance outcomes (simple cognitive task-related skills being outside of the focus of expansive education) through a strategy designed in context (rather than as a stand-alone lesson). Beyond these guidelines, there is much for the expansive educator to try out in class.

Web link: http://rer.sagepub.com/content/66/2/99.full.pdf+html

Research by Ellen Spencer

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