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Encouraging Lifelong Learning - Employability Skills: Learning Strategies

Encouraging Lifelong Learning

Part Two – Decision Making and Problem Solving, Initiative, and Attention to Detail

Employability skills are a set of skills outside of technical or academic competencies that are considered imperative to being a successful employee and team member. In an effort to ensure these skills are integrated into academic settings, the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) has arranged these competencies into four categories: mindsets, work ethic, learning strategies, and social emotional learning.


When woven through content areas and policies and procedures, these skills 

can be developed and practiced in a way that allows them to become habits, even automatic behaviors. This embodiment of skills gives our students an advantage in the workforce compared to others who may be learning these skills later in life. 

Never stop learning graphic

Throughout the year I will address each category in its own blog post. The first in the series was mindsets, the second will be learning strategies and this one is so important it has two parts! Read the first part here LINK TO PART ONE. The Indiana Department of Education defines learning strategies as, “processes and tactics students employ to aid in the cognitive work of thinking, remembering, or learning.”

Learning strategies are then broken down into the following categories: effective communication, aptitude awareness, decision-making, initiative, attention to detail, and problem solving. Together, we will explore strategies to create conditions that support growth and simple but impactful implementation ideas for your classroom! While I have assigned strategies to specific categories, the truth is many, if not all, of these suggestions address several components of developing learning strategies. 

Decision Making and Problem Solving

Introducing students to decision making models can be useful in demonstrating a structure that can be utilized to think through problems without making rash decisions. This, as I’m sure you know, can be particularly difficult for students who struggle with impulsivity. Students who struggle with anxiety or perfectionism may also freeze when it comes time to identify potential solutions. Giving students a process, reminding them to tune into their curiosity, and giving them the space to fail and rebound will help them begin to navigate the big and small decisions with which they will be faced.

Branford's IDEAL problem solving model

Here are a few ideas to help them develop decision making and problem solving skills.


  • Introduce and use a model such as the IDEAL problem solving model to demonstrate the process of thoughtful decision making.


  • Connect to classroom content: present a situation, discuss the end goal and brainstorm how to get there. What are potential obstacles? Unintended consequences of particular approaches? If it is a historical event that has already happened, what do you think led to the decision that was made? What could have been another approach?


  • Develop critical thinking skills. Some of my favorite team building activities that allow students to think critically are the Labyrinth and Lost at Sea. The Labyrinth gets students up and moving and working together as a class while trying to make their way across a maze developed by the teacher in the classroom or, even better, outside! Lost at Seas is a team activity in which students must collaborate and rank the importance of supplies they might need if they were, you guessed it, lost at sea! As mentioned above, these activities are terrific for effective communication as well! 



The goal of all we do and teach is to develop independent learners who have the ability and desire to assess and act on things independently. This is no easy feat! Remember to start small and praise the process! 


Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Model it and name it. This may sound strange or even difficult to do but our students are more likely to learn from what we do than what we say. When you take initiative to do something, announce it and then act. It goes without saying that if this is done with sarcasm or irritation it will be less likely to work. Yet, if we narrate our why and our actions, our students will notice and many will follow our lead!  You might set it up as a statement that can be repeated (and will inevitably live in their heads) such as, I noticed x. I’m going to take the initiative to (action) because (your why or the positive outcome). An example might be, “I noticed there is some trash on the ground, I’m going to take the initiative to clean it up because I care about the environment!” 


student with an idea
  • Help them identify their values and name their goals. Initiative is going to come more naturally when a student is intrinsically motivated. Shame doesn’t change behavior. It might temporarily get the desired effect, but it won’t last. So if you, like me, have grumpily told your kids that it would be nice if someone else could take the initiative to keep the house clean or make dinner or fill in the blank with all the things that fit here, you may have noticed that if these rants work at all, it’s generally short lived.  A better way is to connect with their why. Understanding their value set will allow them and you to communicate more effectively about how taking initiative can help them progress in life. Using my grumpy mom example, I have found that when I say, “I know that you’re hoping to have more freedom. More freedom comes with more responsibility. When I see the responsibility without me needing to constantly remind you, I will feel better about giving you the freedoms you’ve been asking for.” Granted, I don’t say it quite like that, but you get it! I’ve written about how to identify values before and have a FANTASTIC activity that will help you and your students uncover what motivates them!


  • Guide students to use inevitable downtime productively. List upcoming due dates, create habits by asking students to work on homework, take out a book, or complete extra credit when they finish up early. Having these options and reminders readily available will help students create habits that will fill their time productively. Some will, of course, choose not to work during down time. That’s okay. Continue to prompt, be the voice in their heads! 


Attention to Detail

The final skill included in the IDOE’s breakdown of learning strategy skills is: attention to detail. This one is a toughie! The best thing we can do is introduce, teach, and support the following skills to help students pay attention to the details.

Active listening graphic
  • Break it down. When they are young, we give students very short simple instructions and are sure to give only one or two pieces at a time. As they get older we extend that. If you notice a student struggling with paying attention to details, help them break down the task further. What’s the end goal? Where are we now? What are the steps to get there? I still create my work tasks in steps so I am less likely to miss something and so I can have the reward of crossing more things off of my to do list! 


  • Teach, practice, and model active listening. Learning to listen to understand rather than to simply respond is hard! Our fast paced world doesn’t make it any easier. This, of course, ties into effective communication as well. You might start with “give me five” and “whole body listening” and eventually build up to active listening as a studying skill.


  • Slow down! When completing an assignment or taking a test, help students slow down and look back over their work. This might start with looking at their assignment yourself, circling the problems that may require attention and telling them you’ll be back to check those in 5 minutes. Later in the year, perhaps you ask them to go back and circle any little mistakes they noticed, or trade with a friend and check each other’s work. Eventually, a simple prompt of “check your work” will act as a reminder to utilize the check system you’ve taught them. 



I love to learn. LOVE it! I am not sure I can pinpoint when or where that love began but it is something that grows stronger as I get older. I may have drifted away from that love temporarily when I was a teenager and young adult, but in my defense – I had nothing left to learn because I already knew everything, just ask my mom! I am kidding of course and cringing thinking about how much fun my mom will have watching me interact with my children when they believe they know it all – ha! But I digress.


As a school social worker and as a parent, it is my sincere hope that my interactions with the kids in my life will spark or fuel their desire to know more, to ask questions, to remain open to new ideas, and to never stop engaging in the learning process. Like the other employability skills outlined by the Indiana Department of Education, learning strategies are not innate. These skills must be modeled, taught, and reinforced across environments for them to become ingrained. Some of these skills take longer than others to develop, but once we have them, we can rely on them to kick in as an almost automatic response when we need them, thus giving us the gift of lifelong, independent learning! Happy learning, friends!



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