Center for Teaching and Learning

How Do Students Learn? Applying the Research

The first step in designing teaching strategies that make coursework effective and meaningful for students is to understand what helps them learn. In this workshop, we discuss evidence-based teaching strategies relevant for teaching in higher education contexts.

This workshop is based on a book! Some important details…

  • This workshop is centered on the book How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching, by Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, and Norman (2010). This book is available from the UW Libraries (as an e-book) as well as in an online PDF. However, as a facilitator, you’re not required to read the book! We’ve provided a summary of the principles as well as strategies for implementing the principles in teaching.

  • In How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching, the authors synthesize and distill research on brain science and cognitive processes that is accessible for a broad audience and focused on implications for effective teaching strategies. This text is particularly useful as it draws from multiple disciplines (Cognitive, Developmental, and Social Psychology; Anthropology; Education; Diversity studies), the authors consider these seven principles to be:

    • Domain independent: Transcending disciplinary boundaries.

    • Experience independent: Applying to all pedagogical levels and contexts.

    • Cross-culturally relevant: With a slight caveat, they find that although primarily based in Western research, these principles do/will resonate in other cultural contexts.

Note:

  • Text from all linked material in google docs is also available at the bottom of this page–scroll down to access.

Workshop goals & corresponding materials

1. Discuss the seven principles of student learning  identified by Ambrose et al (2010) and their significance in teaching and learning.

Read the 7 Principles worksheet. Fill out the columns next to each principle – what has been your experience with this principle as a learner? What are the implications for teaching?

2. Identify strategies for applying these principles to their own teaching.

After completing your workshop review the 7 Principles of Learning overview. Consider: which of these strategies might you use in your class, and how?

3. Identify resources that can help them discover more about how people learn and how to implement the science of learning into teaching.

Resources to consider:

  1. Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010), How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. [Note that this book is available as an ebook via UW Libraries; See also Brent & Felder entry below for a two page summary of this book].

  2. Brent, R, and Felder, R. M. (2011 Fall), Random Thoughts…How Learning Works. Chemical Engineering Education, vol. 45(4), pp. 257-258. This is a two page summary of Ambrose et al.’s book How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching; also available online. 

  3. Cerbin, B. (2013). Exploring How Students Learn.

What about the concept of “learning styles”?

  • A few participants in this workshop in past years have told us that they expected to hear about the concept of learning styles – the idea that individuals differ and/or have preferences to distinct modes of instruction such as visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. While the concept of learning styles has been introduced widely in Education and beyond, it’s not relevant to the research on which this workshop is focused. While you do not have time to discuss this topic in the workshop, here are a few resources about the concept of learning styles that you may find usefu;


Additional materials (from google docs linked above):

e-Worksheet: How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching

Principle of Learning: Your experience as a learner: Strategies for teaching:
Principle 1: Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.

Students come into our courses with knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes gained in other courses and through daily life. As students bring this knowledge to bear in our classrooms, it influences how they filter and interpret what they are learning. If students’ prior knowledge is robust and accurate and activated at the appropriate time, it provides a strong foundation for building new knowledge. However, when knowledge is inert, insufficient for the task, activated inappropriately, or inaccurate, it can interfere with or impede new learning.

Principle 2: How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.

Students naturally make connections between pieces of knowledge. When those connections form knowledge structures that are accurately and meaningfully organized, students are better able to retrieve and apply their knowledge effectively and efficiently. In contrast, when knowledge is connected in inaccurate or random ways, students can fail to retrieve or apply it appropriately.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Principle 3: Student’s motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.

As students enter college and gain greater autonomy over what, when, and how they study and learn, motivation play a critical role in guiding the direction, intensity, persistence, and quality of the learning behaviors in which they engage. When students find positive value in a learning goal or activity, expect to successfully achieve a desired learning outcomes, and perceive support from their environment, they are likely to be strongly motivated to learn.

Principle 4: To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.

Students must develop not only the component skills and knowledge necessary to perform complex tasks, they must also practice combining and integrating them to develop greater fluency and automaticity, finally, students must learn when and how to apply the skills and knowledge they learn. As instructors, it is important that we develop conscious awareness of these elements of mastery so as to help our students learn more effectively.

Principle 5: Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning.

Learning and performance are best fostered when students engage in practice that focuses on a specific goal or criterion, targets an appropriate level of challenge, and is sufficient quantity and frequency to meet the performance criteria. Practice must be coupled with feedback that explicitly communicates about some aspect(s) of students’ performance relative to specific target criteria, provides information to help students progress in meeting those criteria, and is given at a time and frequency that allows it to be useful.

 

 

Principle 6: Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.

Students are not only intellectual but also social and emotional beings, and they are still developing the full range of intellectual, social, and emotional skills. While we cannot control the developmental process, we can shape the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical aspects of the classroom climate in developmentally appropriate ways. In fact, many studies have shown that the climate we create has implications for our students. A negative climate may impede learning and performance, but a positive climate can energize students’ learning.

Principle 7: To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.

Learners may engage in a variety of metacognitive processes to monitor and control their learning-assessing the task at hand, evaluating their own strengths and weaknesses, planning their approach, applying and monitoring various strategies, and reflecting on the degree to which their current approach is working. Unfortunately, students tend not to engage in these processes naturally. When students develop the skills to engage these processes, they gain intellectual habits that not only improve their performance but also their effectiveness as learners.

 

 

The Seven Principles of Learning: An Overview for Facilitators

The following seven principles for how learning works are drawn from Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, and Norman’s (2010) book How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching, based on their scientific research on cognitive processes related to learning.

Principle 1: Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.

Summary: Students come into our courses with knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes gained in other courses and through daily life. As students bring this knowledge to bear in our classrooms, it influences how they filter and interpret what they are learning. If students’ prior knowledge is robust, accurate and activated at the appropriate time, it provides a strong foundation for building new knowledge. However, when prior knowledge is inert, insufficient for the task, activated inappropriately, or inaccurate, it can interfere with or impede new learning.

Implications and strategies for teaching:
  1. Methods to gauge the extent and nature of students’ prior knowledge:
    1. Talk to colleagues about the general skill level of the students taking your course.
    2. Find out what students have been expected to cover in prior courses (e.g. prerequisites).
    3. Administer a diagnostic assessment at the beginning of the course (through a survey, a low-stakes assignment; a brainstorm or similar class activity).
    4. Have students assess their own prior knowledge.
    5. Use brainstorming to reveal prior knowledge.
    6. Assign a concept map activity.
    7. Look for patterns of error in student work to cue you in to gaps in knowledge.
  2. Methods to activate accurate prior knowledge:
    1. Use exercises to generate students’ prior knowledge about the topic.
    2. Explicitly link new material to knowledge from previous courses.
    3. Explicitly link new material to prior knowledge from your own course.
    4. Use analogies and examples that connect to students’ everyday knowledge.
    5. Ask students to reason on the basis of relevant prior knowledge.
  3. Methods to address insufficient prior knowledge
    1. Identify and be explicit about the prior knowledge you expect students to have.
    2. Plan ahead how you will be able to support students who lack the background knowledge needed for your course (e.g., When and how will you be able to assess this? What resources can you offer and/or refer them to on campus?)
  4. Methods to help students recognize inappropriate prior knowledge
    1. Highlight conditions of applicability.
    2. Provide heuristics to help students avoid inappropriate application of knowledge.
    3. Explicitly identify discipline-specific conventions.
    4. Show where analogies break down.
  5. Methods to correct inaccurate knowledge
    1. Ask students to make and test predictions.
    2. Ask students to justify their reasoning.
    3. Provide multiple opportunities for students to use accurate knowledge.
    4. Allow sufficient time.

Principle 2: How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.

 Summary: Students naturally make connections between pieces of knowledge. When those connections form knowledge structures that are accurately and meaningfully organized, students are better able to retrieve and apply their knowledge effectively and efficiently. In contrast, when knowledge is connected in inaccurate or random ways, students can fail to retrieve or apply it appropriately.

Implications and strategies for teaching:
  1. 1. Strategies to reveal and enhance knowledge organizations
    1. Be explicit with students about the overall organization of the course.
    2. Be explicit about how each class session, lesson, lab, or discussion is organized and relates to the larger course concepts and goals.
    3. Create a concept map to analyze your own knowledge organization.
    4. Analyze tasks to identify the most appropriate knowledge organization.
    5. Provide students with the organizational structure of the course.
    6. Explicitly share the organization of each lecture, lab or discussion.
    7. Use contrasting and boundary cases to highlight organizing features.
    8. Explicitly highlight deep features.
    9. Make connections among concepts explicit.
    10. Encourage students to work with multiple organizing structures.
    11. Ask students to draw a concept map to expose their knowledge organization.
    12. Use a sorting task to expose students’ knowledge organizations.
    13. Monitor students’ work for problems in their knowledge organization.

Principle 3: Students’ motivations determine, direct, and sustain how they learn. 

Summary: As students enter college and gain greater autonomy over what, when, and how they study and learn, motivation play a critical role in guiding the direction, intensity, persistence, and quality of the learning behaviors in which they engage. When students find positive value in a learning goal or activity, expect to successfully achieve a desired learning outcomes, and perceive support from their environment, they are likely to be strongly motivated to learn.

Implications and strategies for teaching:
  1.  Strategies to establish value
    1. Connect the material to students’ interest. In other words, why is this significant to know? How might it effect their future educational experiences, their professional or personal lives?
    2. Provide authentic, real-world tasks.
    3. Show relevance to students’ current academic lives as well as their future professional lives.
    4. Communicate behaviors, knowledge and skills that you value in the course with your students and reward this (e.g. in your grading structure).
    5. Show your own passion and enthusiasm for the discipline.
  2. Strategies that help students build positive expectancies
    1.  Ensure alignment of objectives, assessments and instructional strategies.
    2. Identify an appropriate level of challenge.
    3. Create assignments that provide the appropriate level of challenge.
    4. Provide early success opportunities.
    5. Articulate your expectations.
    6. Provide rubrics.
    7. Provide targeted feedback.
    8. Be fair.
    9. Educate students about the ways we explain success and failure.
    10. Describe effective study strategies.
  3. Strategies that address value and expectancies
    1. Provide flexibility and control.
    2. Give students an opportunity to reflect.

Principle 4: To develop mastery, students must acquire foundational skills, practice integrating these skills, and know when to apply what they have learned.

Summary: Students must develop not only the component skills and knowledge necessary to perform complex tasks, they must also practice combining and integrating them to develop greater fluency and automaticity, finally, students must learn when and how to apply the skills and knowledge they learn. As instructors, it is important that we develop conscious awareness of these elements of mastery so as to help our students learn more effectively.

Implications and strategies for teaching:
  1. Strategies to expose and reinforce component skills
    1. Identify the “component skills” for specific tasks and assignments (in other words, what foundational skills are required for this task?). Break down the task by asking “What would students have to know in order to do this task?” For example, if doing a research paper, do students know what sources are appropriate and how to cite them?).
    2. Push past your own expert blind spots. Recognize that you may have an “expert’s blind spot” preventing you from remembering the specific component skills required to perform certain activities or understand a concept. To help you get past this blind spot, get feedback from students and your colleagues who teach similar courses or assignments; you could also get feedback from someone outside of your discipline, such as a teaching consultant or a colleague.
    3. Focus students’ attention on key aspects of the task.
    4. Diagnose weak or missing component skills.
    5. Provide isolated practice of weak or missing skills. Design assignments and activities in which students practice component skills as well as integrating components into more complex tasks. This process is called scaffolding—in other words, moving from simpler ideas and skills to more complex ideas and skills that build off of them.
  2. Strategies to build fluency and facilitate integration
    1. Give students practice to increase fluency.
    2. Temporarily constrain the scope of the task.
    3. Explicitly include integration in your performance criteria.
  3. Strategies to facilitate transfer
    1. Give students opportunities to apply skills or knowledge in diverse contexts.
    2. Ask students to generalize to larger principles.
    3. Use comparisons to help students identify deep features.
    4. Specify context and ask students to identify relevant skills or knowledge.
    5. Specify skills or knowledge and ask students to identify contexts in which they apply.
    6. Provide prompts to relevant knowledge.

Principle 5: Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning.

Summary: Learning and performance are best fostered when students engage in practice that focuses on a specific goal or criterion, targets an appropriate level of challenge, and is sufficient quantity and frequency to meet the performance criteria. Practice must be coupled with feedback that explicitly communicates about some aspect(s) of students’ performance relative to specific target criteria, provides information to help students progress in meeting those criteria, and is given at a time and frequency that allows it to be useful.

Implications and strategies for teaching:
  1. Strategies addressing the need for goal-directed practice
    1. Conduct a prior knowledge assessment to target an appropriate challenge level.
    2. Be explicit about your goals in the course materials.
    3. Use a rubric to specify and communicate performance criteria.
    4. Build in multiple opportunities for practice.
    5. Build scaffolding into assignments.
    6. Set expectations about practice.
    7. Give examples or models of target performance.
    8. Show students what you do not want.
    9. Refine your goals and performance criteria as the course progresses.
  2. Strategies addressing the need for targeted feedback.
    1. Prioritize your feedback.
    2. Balance strengths and weaknesses in your feedback.
    3. Design frequent opportunities to give feedback.
    4. Provide feedback at the group level.
    5. Provide real-time feedback at the group level.
    6. Incorporate peer feedback.
    7. Share patterns of errors in students’ work rather than highlighting each individual error.
    8. Require students to specify how they used feedback in subsequent work.

Principle 6: Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.

Summary: Students are not only intellectual but also social and emotional beings, and they are still developing a full range of intellectual, social, and emotional skills. While we cannot control the developmental process, we can shape the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical aspects of the classroom climate in developmentally appropriate ways. In fact, many studies have shown that the climate we create has implications for our students. A negative climate may impede learning and performance, but a positive climate can energize students’ learning.

Implications and strategies for teaching:
  1. Strategies that promote student development and productive climate
    1. Talk explicitly about creating a productive climate for learning with your students, recognizing that productive climates include degrees of safety and challenge. Establish and reinforce ground rules for interaction with your students.
    2. Reduce anonymity among students by learning their names, having them learn each other’s names and engage with each other.
    3. Make uncertainty safe.
    4. Resist a single right answer. If applicable, promote critical thinking as a means of embracing complexity rather than simplifying matters (and finding a single right answer). Help students see the value in tolerating or embracing ambiguity. Model this in your teaching.
    5. Incorporate evidence into performance and grading criteria.
    6. Examine your assumptions about students, avoiding making assumptions of their abilities, backgrounds and common experiences.
    7. Do not ask individuals to speak for an entire group.
    8. Reduce anonymity.
    9. Model inclusive language, behavior, and attitudes. Validate multiple viewpoints in the class.
    10. Use multiple and diverse examples.
    11. Establish and reinforce ground rules for interaction.
    12. Make sure course content does not marginalize students.
    13. Use the syllabus and first day of class to establish the course climate.
    14. Set up processes to get feedback on the climate.
    15. Anticipate and prepare for potentially sensitive issues.
    16. Address tensions early.
    17. Turn discord and tension into a learning opportunity.
    18. Facilitate active listening.
    19. Get feedback from students about the class climate.

Principle 7: To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.

 Summary: Learners may engage in a variety of metacognitive processes to monitor and control their learning-assessing the task at hand, evaluating their own strengths and weaknesses, planning their approach, applying and monitoring various strategies, and reflecting on the degree to which their current approach is working. Unfortunately, students tend not to engage in these processes naturally. When students develop the skills to engage these processes, they gain intellectual habits that not only improve their performance but also their effectiveness as learners.

Implications and strategies for teaching:
  1. Assessing the task at hand
    1. Be more explicit than you may think necessary.
    2. Tell students what you do not want.
    3. Check students’ understanding of the task.
    4. Provide performance criteria with the assignment (such as a grading rubric, examples of successful assignments).
  2. Evaluating one’s own strengths and weaknesses
    1. Give early, performance-based assessments.
    2. Provide opportunities for self-assessment.
  3. Planning an appropriate approach
    1. Have students implement a plan that you provide.
    2. Have students create their own plan.
    3. Make planning the central goal of the assignment.
  4. Applying strategies and monitoring performance
    1. Provide simple heuristics for self-correction.
    2. Have students do guided self-assessments.
    3. Require students to reflect on and annotate their own work.
    4. Use peer review/reader response.
  5. Reflecting on and adjusting one’s approach
    1. Provide activities that require students to reflect on their performances.
    2. Prompt students to analyze the effectiveness of their study skills.
    3. Present multiple strategies.
    4. Create assignments that focus on strategizing rather than implementation.
  6. Beliefs about intelligence and learning
    1. Broaden students’ understanding of learning.
    2. Help students set realistic expectations.
  7. General strategies to promote metacognition
    1. Model your metacognitive processes.
    2. Scaffold students in their metacognitive processes.

Source: Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010), How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.(This book is available online as an ebook from UW Libraries)