Strategy instruction: What you need to know

Strategy instruction is a teaching practice that shows students how to learn the content or skills they need to acquire. It provides students with clear strategies (such as note-taking or thinking aloud) to help them process, remember, and express the information they learn.

Think back to the last time you made a checklist for yourself, took organized notes during a meeting, or made up a mnemonic to memorize important information. Whether you knew it or not, you were using cognitive and metacognitive strategies. Those same strategies can help students become independent learners.

Strategy instruction is all about teaching students how to learn. They need strategies that help them acquire information (like how to ask questions), remember information (like note-taking), and express information (like creating an outline). 

In other words, you teach students the what of your content-area curriculum — math facts, grammar rules, and so on. Strategy instruction is how students learn, remember, and use that information. These are strategies that students can use throughout their lives.

Of course, students don’t just magically acquire these strategies. They must be explicitly taught. You can do this by explaining the strategy, modeling the steps in the correct sequence, and then allowing students to practice. This kind of explicit instruction is especially important for students who learn and think differently. But it can also help all students be effective, flexible, self-reflective learners.

Why use strategy instruction?

Strategy instruction is a powerful, lifelong tool that boosts students’ cognitive and metacognitive abilities. It also boosts their confidence as learners. Here are some reasons why you might want to try it in your classroom.

Benefits for students

It reduces the effort put on the brain and frees students up to aim their energy at “the thinking,” rather than at “the doing.” For students who learn and think differently, strategy instruction is critical. Students who struggle with attention often miss key steps involved in learning tasks. Similarly, students with reading or writing difficulties may struggle when several different skills are required to perform a learning task. They benefit when a teacher clearly explains, names, and models the steps and gives them a specific example to follow.

It can help English language learners (ELLs) learn content. face the challenge of learning content and language at the same time. Strategic instruction can help them access, organize, and synthesize new information, freeing up space in the brain to learn content in the new language.

It can support higher-order thinking. Strategic instruction helps students understand foundational concepts and skills. With that knowledge base, higher-order thinking becomes more accessible for all students.

Benefits for educators

Strategy instruction can help students learn important social-emotional skills. Just as you can teach content-area strategies, you can also teach social strategies such as listening and interpreting nonverbal signals.

It is the key to faster progress. Think of strategy instruction as a way to “slow down to go fast.” Yes, it takes time to teach strategies, but with opportunities to practice, the strategies will become second nature to students. When you pull back the curtain to reveal the steps involved in learning, you let all learners in on the “secret” of learning.

Students will spend less time on the obstacles. For example, instead of spending time trying to start writing an essay, students will have a greater capacity for tackling new skills and concepts. You may find that strategy instruction results in higher engagement, less frustration, and improved classroom behavior.

What are the two types of strategies?

There are two main types of strategies you can teach students: cognitive and metacognitive. Cognitive strategies are the tools students can use to acquire, remember, and express information, such as note-taking, mnemonics, or using a checklist. Metacognitive strategies are tools students can use to “think about their thinking,” or understand the way they learn. These tools can vary from self-assessments to self-regulation techniques.

Students use cognitive strategies to reach a learning outcome, such as solving an addition problem. They use metacognitive strategies to determine how to approach a learning goal, if they were successful in reaching it, and what they did to make that happen. Students typically use metacognitive strategies before or after a cognitive strategy.

What it isHelps students reach a learning outcome (like solving a math problem)Helps students to think about their thinking

Organization, like teaching students how to use an academic planner


Note-taking and study skills, like creating outlines and making drawings of the content


Advanced thinking, like organizing information sequentially or finding the cause and effect

Social-emotional skills

Self-assessments, like reflecting on what they’ve learned


Self-instruction, like thinking aloud or modeling a process 

Self-monitoring, like using a rubric to self-access whether they have completed all the expectations of the assignment
Strategies in the content areas

Reading: Determining the main idea and supporting details


Writing: Developing and organizing an outline in response to a prompt


Math: Using tools like a fraction number line 


Science: Using a mnemonic to remember the order of the planets

Reading: Self-monitoring by asking, “Did I understand what I just read?”


Writing: Self-editing using a checklist


Math: Thinking aloud while doing a math problem with a peer


Science: Self-reflecting on what they learned during a lab and what is still unclear


How do I put strategy instruction into practice?

Using strategy instruction in your classroom requires some planning. Whether you’re focused on helping your students use cognitive strategies, metacognitive strategies, or both, there are five main components to putting them into practice.

1. Identify and prioritize. Think about an area where your students get tripped up in your content curriculum. Then, pick a strategy that will help students learn that material. For example, if your students have a hard time with memorizing, try the strategy of mnemonics. 

2. Connect the strategy to a class activity or assignment. Teaching a strategy in the context of a real activity or assignment is essential. It helps students understand the value of the strategy and gives them a clear incentive to master it. In the example about using mnemonics, if you were teaching a math lesson about the order of operations, the mnemonic “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” could be a good choice. You would introduce it as you’re talking about the order of operations.

3. Explicitly and sequentially model the strategy. Introduce the strategy to students and briefly describe its specific steps. Explain why it can help them so that they’re motivated to learn the strategy. Then, model each step using explicit instruction.

As you model, name, and explain each step, do a think-aloud of what’s going through your mind. For students who learn and think differently, it’s helpful to break the strategy into parts and practice each part separately. This reduces the likelihood of overwhelming students. 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) note: Model the strategy using multiple forms of representation, like creating a visual to go along with your think-aloud. Make sure to also invite students to express their understanding of the strategy in varied ways, like doing a call-and-response chant, creating a song, or drawing their own visual.

4. Help students internalize the strategy through practice. The more practice students get with the strategy, the more likely they will internalize it. Start with easier examples for practice and then gradually introduce more difficult examples. Make sure students have a chance to practice the same strategy in different scenarios.

For instance, you might extend your mnemonics strategy to science and ask students to come up with their own sentence to memorize the order of the planets. As they practice, provide quick feedback that is specific, positive, and corrective to help students become fluent with the strategy. You can also ask students to reflect on and assess their use of the strategy.

5. Support the strategy. Teaching the strategy once won’t be enough for some students. Plan to reteach, remodel, and remind students about the steps involved in the strategy. Continue to give corrective feedback. At this point, you might also talk about ways to use the strategy in other subject areas or in general life tasks.

Actively encourage students to use the strategies for various activities and assignments. That way, you’ll help them transfer the strategy in different learning and life situations. 

What does strategy instruction look like in action?

Watch this video of a student using a self-monitoring strategy he learned. Think about these guiding questions as you watch: 

  • What tool is he using to self-monitor?

  • What do you notice about the tool?

  • What steps do you think his teacher took to explicitly teach this strategy?

How can families support this at home?

There are many ways families can support strategy instruction at home — even if they don’t use the technical term “strategy instruction.” You can suggest different ideas at parent-teacher conferences or by email or phone call.

  • Create a homework editing checklist for their child to reference. For example, you can send home a COPS checklist (Capitalize, Organize, Punctuate, Spellcheck) to remind students to review their finished homework.

  • Use dinner conversations to ask them about what they’re learning, what’s going well, what’s more difficult, what strategies help them with their learning, and what they do when they get stuck. These kinds of conversations help children think about their thinking. 

  • Post reminders of important mnemonics or acronyms in the place where they do their homework.

  • Help their child set up organizational routines, like using a backpack checklist to make sure they have everything they need for school. 

Now that you know the basics of strategy instruction, try it out with your students to help them become more independent learners.


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