Cognitive Strategies

Cognitive strategies are useful tools in assisting students with learning problems. The term "cognitive strategies" in its simplest form is the use of the mind (cognition) to solve a problem or complete a task. Cognitive strategies may also be referred to as procedural facilitators (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987), procedural prompts (Rosenshine, 1997) orscaffolds (Palincsar & Brown, 1984). A related term is metacognition, the self-reflection or "thinking about thinking" necessary for students to learn effectively (Baker, Gersten, & Scanlon, 2002).

Cognitive strategies provide a structure for learning when a task cannot be completed through a series of steps. For example, algorithms in mathematics provide a series of steps to solve a problem. Attention to the steps results in successful completion of the problem. In contrast, reading comprehension, a complex task, is a good example of a task that does not follow a series of steps. Further explanation is provided below.

A cognitive strategy serves to support the learner as he or she develops internal procedures that enable him/her to perform tasks that are complex (Rosenshine, 1997). Reading comprehension is an area where cognitive strategies are important. A self-questioning strategy can help students understand what they read. Rosenshine states that the act of creating questions does not lead directly to comprehension. Instead, students search the text and combine information as they generate questions; then they comprehend what they have read.

The use of cognitive strategies can increase the efficiency with which the learner approaches a learning task. These academic tasks can include, but are not limited to, remembering and applying information from course content, constructing sentences and paragraphs, editing written work, paraphrasing, and classifying information to be learned.

In a classroom where cognitive strategies are used, the teacher fulfills a pivotal role, bridging the gap between student and content/skill to be learned. This role requires an understanding of the task to be completed, as well as knowledge of an approach (or approaches) to the task that he/she can communicate to the learner.

Content Enhancement

Impacting both the task and the learner using cognitive strategies is referred to as Content Enhancement. Bulgren, Deshler, and Schumaker (1997) highlight three important teacher activities in their model of content enhancement:

  1. Teachers evaluate the content they cover.
  2. Teachers determine the necessary approaches to learning for student success
  3. Teachers teach with routines and instructional supports that assist students as they apply appropriate techniques and strategies.

In this way, the teacher emphasizes what the students should learn, or the "product" of learning. In addition, the teacher models the how or "process" of learning.

Content Evaluation

When a teacher is comfortable with the content he/she is teaching, he/she knows which parts are the most important, the most interesting and the easiest (or hardest) to learn. The teacher evaluates the content with various questions in mind:

  • How important is this information to my students?
  • Is any of this information irrelevant to the point I can minimize or exclude it?
  • How will my students use this information beyond my classroom (in general education classrooms, college and/or career settings, etc.)
  • What parts of this information do I think my students will grasp quickly?
  • What parts of this information do I think my students will need "extras" (more time, more examples, peer help, more explanation, applications, etc.)
  • How should I pace the presentation?
  • Which evaluations are going to help me know that my students understand this information?

The more experienced the teacher is with content, the better he/she will be able to plan students' cognitive journey through the information or skills that will be unfamiliar to them.

Determination of necessary approaches

Now the teacher's attention turns to his/her knowledge of the students. Student characteristics such as intellectual ability, interest in the subject, and general motivation to learn are considered. The teacher selects learning approaches that complement the learner characteristics while ensuring success with the content. A teacher who teaches cognitive strategies well will connect learner and task. A strategy will be chosen because it is the best strategy for BOTH the learner's characteristics and the task and/or content that needs to be mastered.

Routines and instructional supports

Once the best strategy or strategies have been selected, the teacher begins the work of teaching the strategy to the student(s). Explicit instruction is used to impart the components or steps of the strategy. Often the strategy will include actions or routines that are repeated each time the strategy is implemented. Additional instructional supports such as guided practice, independent practice, verbal practice, and written or oral tests may also be used.

A Real-Life Example

You can compare the teaching of cognitive strategies to teaching a friend to drive in your hometown. Because you are in your hometown, you know the area, or content, very well. In addition, the person you are teaching to drive is your friend, so you also know the learner well. This knowledge can make your teaching more efficient, because you have two areas of expertise (the content and the learner) at your disposal. You will use a combination of explicit instructions (turn left on Church Street) and supports (maps, the rule that "all avenues run North-South") to teach your friend how to navigate around town. You may also use verbal directions as opposed to maps, depending on your friend's preferred mode of information.

Just as important, you can avoid situations that could become barriers to learning (and your friendship). For example, if your friend tends to be anxious, you will NOT begin your instruction during rush hour!

Selected Cognitive Strategies

Because they are diverse and highly relevant to tasks, the use of cognitive strategies by teachers and students can significantly impact important learning outcomes for students. This website provides examples of cognitive strategies, with descriptions and examples. The following table presents the strategies that will be discussed. In addition, case studies will be presented to show cognitive strategies in action.

Cognitive Strategies for Special Connections

Strategy Type

Brief Description


Orienting Strategies

Student's attention is drawn to a task through teacher input, highlighted material, and/or student self-regulation.

Teacher cue to "listen carefully"Boldface type

Specific Aids for Attention

Student's attention is maintained by connecting a concrete object or other cue to the task.

A special pencil cues the student to pay special attention to punctuation when he is writing sentences.

Specific Aids for Problem-Solving or Memorization

Student's problem-solving is enhanced by connecting a concrete object or other cue to the task.

Concrete objects are used in solving math problems.


Student practices (rehearses) target information through verbalization, visual study, or other means.

Students practice vocabulary and definitions through games where they must orally repeat target information.


Student expands target information by relating other information to it (ex. creating a phrase, making an analogy).

Students relate the life of an ant colony to their community.


Student simplifies target information by converting difficult or unfamiliar information into more manageable information.

Procedures for protecting oneself from being burned are learned as "Stop, Drop, and Roll".


Student transforms target information by creating meaningful visual, auditory, or kinesthetic images of the information.

Visualization of a scene described in a passage


Student transforms target information by relating a cue word, phrase, or sentence to the target information.

My Dear Aunt Sally for the order of mathematical operations (multiply, divide, add, subtract)


Student categorizes, sequences or otherwise organizes information for more efficient recall and use.

Words in lists are placed in categories.

*Imagery and Mnemonics can be considered special types of transformational strategies.

The use of cognitive strategies can increase the efficiency and confidence with which the learner approaches a learning task, as well as his/her ability to develop a product, retain essential information, or perform a skill. While teaching cognitive strategies requires a high degree of commitment from both the teacher and learner, the results are well worth the effort.

Developed by: LuAnn Jordan, Ph.D., University of North Carolina, Charlotte.