What’s your strategy for learning?

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Here’s a little test for you: Write a one-paragraph summary of a newspaper or web article you just read. After you’ve done that, try to explain how you did it. Did you read the text over and over to try to commit it to memory? Did you make sure the most important facts in the article were represented in your summary, in your own words? You might ask: what does it matter?

Knowing the best way to summarise information you read is key to being a proficient reader. In fact, this month’s PISA in Focus suggests that if disadvantaged students – who consistently score lower on PISA assessments than advantaged students — used the most effective learning strategies to the same extent as students from more advantaged backgrounds do, the performance gap between the two groups would shrink considerably.

PISA 2009 asked students to describe how they summarise texts they read. Based on their responses, and on experts’ judgements of the relative effectiveness of different strategies, PISA was able to determine the extent to which students were aware of the most effective strategies for learning. 

Results show that countries with a strong average reading performance are those whose students generally know how to summarise information. Across OECD countries, the difference in reading performance between those students who know which strategies are best for summarising information and those who know the least is 107 PISA score points – the equivalent of more than two years of schooling. The findings also indicated that, within OECD countries, students from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds know more about the relative effectiveness of different learning strategies than students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Could these differences contribute to performance differences between advantaged and disadvantaged students?

The answer is “yes”: students from disadvantaged backgrounds could attain scores much closer to those of their advantaged peers if they had a greater knowledge of how best to approach learning. In as many as 31 countries and economies, if the most disadvantaged students had the same levels of awareness about summarising strategies as the most advantaged students in their countries and economies, their reading performance would be at least 15 points higher. In Austria, Belgium, Dubai (UAE), France, Hungary, Germany, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Portugal, Switzerland and Uruguay, the score-point difference between what disadvantaged students could achieve if they had the same levels of knowledge about effective summarising strategies as advantaged students is more than 20 points, or the equivalent of half a year of formal schooling. Across OECD countries, if disadvantaged students used effective learning strategies to the same extent as students from more advantaged backgrounds do, the performance gap between the two groups would be almost 20% narrower. In Belgium, Finland, Korea and Liechtenstein, the gap would be 25% narrower.

While PISA cannot firmly establish cause and effect, these results suggest that one of the ways socio-economic advantage translates into better proficiency in reading is by providing more opportunities for students to develop an understanding of which learning strategies are the most effective. But there is no reason why these opportunities should be available mostly to advantaged students. By reading to their young children or talking with adolescent children about cultural or political events, all parents can give their children opportunities to experiment with and practice various learning strategies. Teachers, particularly those who work in schools with large proportions of disadvantaged students, can focus some of their reading lessons on the best strategies for summarising information. After all, knowing how to learn from the earliest age equips a student for a lifetime of learning.

Now: can you summarise, in two sentences, what you just read?

For more information on PISA: www.oecd.org/pisa/
PISA in Focus No.30 :Could learning strategies reduce the performance gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students?
Photo credit: Definition of the word summary/ Shutterstock

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