Modern language learning: towards a more strategic approach
Learning involves a whole range of processes, such as reading, memorising, thinking, writing, note-taking, observing, imitating, listening to and talking with others and doing things. Learning can happen everywhere. Language learners may learn in more structured situations, such as attending lessons and courses or using virtual learning environments (VLEs); in informal situations, such as reading for pleasure, browsing through books or looking for information online; and through casual conversations with classmates, other learners or even strangers. Following Marton and his co-workers  who developed the notion that students adopt deep or surface approaches to learning, Brown (2004) identifies a third, strategic approach to learning.
Strategic learners are concerned about getting the best marks possible, whether the material is interesting or not. They adopt the deep or surface learning strategy according to their perceptions of the task. They organise their time and working space efficiently and choose appropriate readings or tasks that they think will enable them to get the best marks. The current assessment system favours strategic learners.
(Brown, 2004: 32)
So what makes a strategic learner?
Rely on your strengths
What helps us learn and remember things better? Many people use a combination of learning styles, whereas others learn best by using only one. The table below summarises how people learn applying different learning styles.
Learning style How we learn
Visual by seeing and reading
Auditory by listening and speaking
Tactile / physical by touching and doing
Visual learners rely more on things that they can see, such as pictures, diagrams, demonstrations or films. Auditory learners prefer things that they can hear, such as audio recordings, lectures or songs. Tactile learners use physical experience – touching, feeling, doing and practical activities – to learn things more effectively.
Learning preferences can be used to help us develop additional, effective strategies for learning and improving our communication skills.
Goals should be both useful and motivating. In her book College Study Skills: Becoming a Strategic Learner, Van Blerkom (2009) identifies some key characteristics of effective study goals. They are:
Self-chosen – If learners set their own goals, they will be more motivated to achieve them.
Moderately challenging – Such goals require learners to achieve more than they did before, without putting too much pressure on them.
Attainable – To set realistic goals, learners must carefully evaluate their chances of achieving each of them.
Measurable – At the end of a study period, learners should be able to look at their results and at the results they set as their goal and evaluate their effort.
Specific – The more specific one’s goals are, the more motivated they will be to achieve them. Learners are less likely to achieve vague or unclear goals.
Finite (time-bound) – Without deadlines, many learners tend to put off starting, working on, and completing their goals.
Positive – We always do better if we are working towards something or when you have a positive attitude.
Goal-setting increases our motivation and improves our performance. Goals give us a clearer sense of direction, as well as encourage us to mobilise our effort, be more persistent and try different strategies to accomplish what we have planned.
Everyone revises differently and the techniques we use depend partly on the subject we are studying. On the other hand, the same main principles apply to all subject areas. Rather than simply rereading notes or memorising as much as possible the night before a test or exam, strategic learners adopt a more structured approach to their revision. The main principles are as follows :
Knowing what to expect– Good learners look at the content and format of the exam papers so they know what questions they will have to answer and how to deal with them. They practise using sample examination papers or past papers.
Identifying knowledge gaps – Good learners review their own knowledge and understanding in order to decide which topics they might need to revise intensively and which they need to review only briefly.
Creating a timetable – Good learners look at how much time they have available and create a timetable. They plan ahead to fit their revision around their school (work) and domestic life.
The diagram below illustrates how new things can be learned in a more structured way.
Strategic learners are good at planning what they need to learn, how they are going to study, how much time and what resources they need (textbooks, grammar and vocabulary reference and practice books, dictionaries, useful websites, their teacher, peers, etc.). They usually learn what they have planned and seek advice on how they could do it more effectively. They review what they learned and how they did it. They also reflect on (= think) how well they did, what went well and why, what did not go well and why, how they can learn from their mistakes, and what they need to learn next.
In our courses, we use certain activities to foster the development of a more strategic approach to learning English and other foreign languages.
 Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N. (eds) (1993) The Experience of Learning: Implications for studying and teaching in higher education Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.
 Adapted from: Skills for OU Study http://www2.open.ac.uk/students/skillsforstudy/revision.php
Brown, G. (2004), How Students Learn. A supplement to the RoutledgeFalmer Key Guides for Effective Teaching in Higher Education series. London: Routledge.
Van Blerkom, D. L. (2009) College Study Skills: Becoming a Strategic Learner, 6th ed. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, p. 33.