This workshop is intended to provide you with an evidence-based approach to teaching at the post-secondary level.
Based on Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett and Norman’s book How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, this workshop will review seven general principles of learning that are grounded in evidence-based research on teaching and learning. You will learn why certain teaching approaches support student learning, and use this to refine your approach to teaching.
By the end of this workshop you should be able to:
- Identify the seven research-based principles regarding how students learn
- Describe possible strategies for implementing these principles
Principle #1: Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning
As instructors, we can and should build on students ’ prior knowledge, it is also important to recognize that not all prior knowledge provides an equally solid foundation for new learning.
Prior knowledge is helpful when it is...
You can identify some common misconceptions in your discipline by considering your student’s prior learning and connecting new knowledge to prior knowledge.
Students learn and retain more when they can connect what they are learning to accurate and relevant prior knowledge. For example, college students presented with unfamiliar facts about well-known individuals demonstrated twice the capacity to learn and retain those facts as students who were presented with the same number of facts about unfamiliar individuals (Kole & Healy, 2007).
However, we shouldn’t assume that students will draw on their prior knowledge in new learning situations. It is important to help students activate prior knowledge (e.g., with prompts, reminders, recall questions).
It’s important that we are clear about the knowledge requirements of different tasks. For example, knowing what is a very different kind of knowledge than knowing how or knowing when. Don’t assume that because students have one kind of knowledge that they have another. Assessing both the extent and nature of students’ prior knowledge ensures that we design our teaching appropriately.
Students may draw on knowledge that is inappropriate for the context when learning new material. This can distort their interpretation of new material or impede new learning. To help students learn when their prior knowledge is or is not applicable:
- Clearly explain the conditions and contexts of applicability
- Provide multiple examples and contexts
- Point out similarities and differences
- Deliberately activate relevant prior knowledge to strengthen links
It’s important to address inaccurate prior knowledge that might otherwise distort or impede learning. Sometimes, simply exposing students to accurate information and evidence that conflicts with flawed understanding is enough to correct these inaccuracies. However, a single correction or refutation is unlikely to change deeply held misconceptions. Guiding students through conceptual change takes time, patience, and creativity.
Strategies to determine and acknowledge students’ prior knowledge
The following strategies offer some ways to help you determine the extent and quality of students’ prior knowledge, activate students ’ relevant prior knowledge, address gaps in prior knowledge, help students avoid applying prior knowledge in the wrong contexts, and help students revise and rethink inaccurate knowledge.
- Use diagnostic assessments to gauge the nature and extent of prior knowledge (e.g., self and peer assessments, brainstorming, mind maps)
- Be explicit about connections to knowledge from previous courses and within your own course
- Use analogies and examples that connect to students’ everyday knowledge
- Ask students to make tests and predictions
- Ask students to justify their reasoning
- Provide multiple opportunities to use accurate knowledge
Reflect on common misconceptions in your discipline by working through the following questions:
- Identify a concept that is often misunderstood in your discipline.
- Explain why the concept is important and what the impact/effect is of not understanding this concept.
- Think of factors that can contribute to your students’ misunderstanding of that concept.
Principle #2: How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know
Follow the instructions in the game below to experience how organization matters (modified from eCampusOntario, Teacher for Learning module):
When you’re going through this activity the first time, you want to succeed in the task assigned so you’re less likely to pay attention to the words themselves. Most people remember more words the second time they play the game. There are three reasons for this. First, you knew what the real task was by being provided the criteria for success. Second, the information was organized in a way to aid memory. Third, you were given more than one opportunity to practice.
Why knowledge organization matters
Consider two students who are asked to identify when the British defeated the Spanish Armada. The first student tells us that the date is 1588, and the second says that he cannot remember the precise date but thinks it must be around 1590. Given that 1588 is the correct answer, the first student appears to have more accurate knowledge.
However, when asked how they arrived at their answers, the first student says that he memorized the date. In contrast, the second student says he knew that the British colonized Virginia just after 1600 and inferred that the British would not organize colonization until navigation was considered safe. Figuring that it would take around 10 years for navigation to be organized, he arrived at the answer of 1590.
These responses reveal very different ways of organizing knowledge, which has implications for future learning.
Experts ’ vs. novices ’ knowledge organizations
Experts ’ and novices ’ in a field organize knowledge in different ways. One of the ways these knowledge organizations differ is in the number or density of connections among the concepts, facts, and skills they know. Click on the plus icons in the figure below for a description of how these organizational structures can differ. Pieces of knowledge are represented by nodes, and relationships between them are represented by links.
Although students may not possess the highly connected knowledge organizations, they can develop more sophisticated knowledge organizations over time. We can help our students by providing structures that help them develop more connections among pieces of knowledge.
Strategies for organizing information
The following strategies offer some ways for you to to assess your own knowledge organizations and help students develop more connected and meaningful ways of organizing their knowledge.
- Create a concept map to analyze your/your students’ knowledge organization
- Use a sorting task to expose students ’ knowledge organizations (e.g., surface vs. deep connections)
- Explicitly share the organizational structure of the course, each lecture/lab, discussion, etc.
- Encourage students to work with multiple organizing structures (e.g., classify plants first on the basis of their evolutionary histories and then on the basis of native habitat)
Principle #3: Students’ motivation determines, directs and sustains what they do learn
There are two important concepts that are central to understanding motivation: the subjective value of a goal and the expectancies, or expectations, for achievement of that goal.
A student will be more motivated to pursue a goal or task that has the highest value to them. Value can be derived from a number of different sources (Wigfield and Eccles, 1992, 2000).
The satisfaction that one gains from mastery and accomplishment of a goal or task. For example, a student may receive great satisfaction from solving complex analytical problems and consequently work for many hours simply to demonstrate her ability to solve them.
The satisfaction simply from doing the task rather than from a particular outcome of the task. For example, when students spend hours writing a computer program because of the enjoyment they derive from the task.
The degree to which an activity or goal helps one accomplish other important goals. For example, a student who is motivated to study and attend their business classes by the instrumental value the classes provide toward their desired salary and status.
People are motivated to pursue goals and outcomes that they believe they can successfully achieve. Two forms of expectancies inform our understanding of motivated behaviour.
The belief that specific actions will bring about a desired outcome (Carver & Scheier, 1998). For example, “if I do all the assigned readings and participate in class discussions, I will be able to learn the material well enough to solve problems on the exam and achieve a passing grade.”
The belief that one is capable of identifying, organizing, initiating, and executing a course of action that will bring about a desired outcome (Bandura, 1997).Prior experience in similar contexts and the reasons that students identify for their previous successes and failures can influence expectation of success. For example, if a student attributes the good grade she received on a design project to her own creativity (i.e., ability) or to the many long hours she spent on its planning and execution (i.e., effort), she is likely to expect success on future design assignments.
How perceptions of the environment affect the interaction of value and expectancies
Value and expectancies interact within the broader environmental context in which they exist. Click on the plus icons in the image below to learn how differences in value, efficacy, and the supportive nature of the environment can influence students motivation.
(Image adapted from Ambrose et al. (2010), p. 80.)
Each of the dimensions in the image are features of the learning environment over which we can have substantial influence. If we neglect any single dimension, motivation can suffer substantially.
Strategies to establish value and build positive expectancies
The following strategies offer some ways that may increase the value that students place on the goals and activities, strengthen students ’ expectancies, and create an environment that supports motivation.
- Connect the material to students’ interests
- Provide authentic, real-world tasks
- Show relevance to students’ lives
- Identify and reward what you value (e.g., in the syllabus, through feedback, through modelling)
- Show your own passion and enthusiasm
- Identify an appropriate level of challenge (e.g., pre-assess prior knowledge)
- Provide early opportunities for success
- Articulate your expectations (e.g., provide a rubric, provide targeted feedback)
- Describe effective study strategies
Principle #4: To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned
When instructors assign tasks to students, these tasks may involve more from students than the instructors initially realize, and the students may be less prepared than what the instructor initially thinks. Tasks that seem straightforward and simple to instructors often involve a complex combination of skills that requires the development of mastery in a subject.
Stages in the Development of Mastery
Understood generally, mastery refers to “the attainment of a high degree of competence within a particular area” (Ambrose et al., 95). Sprague and Stuart (2000) identify four stages in the development of mastery. Click on the red plus signs in the image below to learn more about that stage:
Instructors are often experts in their field, and are thus unconsciously competent in their fields, whereas students are often new to the field, and so are unconsciously incompetent. Since instructors are unconsciously competent in their field, they are often not aware of the learning needs of students; in other words, they have what is referred to as ‘expert blind spot.’ (Nickerson, 1999; Hinds, 1999; Nathan & Koedinger, 2000).
To reduce the problems that expert blind spot poses for student learning, instructors should become more consciously aware of three elements of mastery that students need to develop: the acquisition of component skills, practice in integrating component skills, and knowledge of when to apply what they have learned.
Instructors can facilitate transfer in a number of ways:
The following strategies can help you reduce the effects of expert blind spot, and help promote the acquisition, integration, and application of skills that can help facilitate transfer to new knowledge domains.
- Push past your own blind spot by asking yourself, ‘What would students have to know, or know how to do, in order to achieve what I am asking of them?’
- Ask a TA or grad student to help with breaking a task up into component parts
- Enlist the help of someone outside your discipline. A person who does not share your disciplinary expertise or its blind spots can help you identify areas in which you may have unintentionally omitted or skipped over important component skills
- Clearly communicate your goals for assignments by telling students where to focus their energy – this can reduce extraneous load
- Give students opportunities to apply skills or knowledge in diverse contexts
- Ask students to generalize to larger principles
- Provide prompts
Putting it into Practice!
Please complete the following two multiple choice questions to reflect on and test what you have learned about this principle.
Principle #5: Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback are critical to learning
Practice and feedback are essential for learning. Within the context of a learning environment, practice is understood as any activity in which students engage their knowledge or skills, while feedback is understood as information provided to students about their performance on a task that is intended to guide future behaviour.
The Importance of Practice
To advance student learning, research suggests that practice should focus on a specific goal or criterion, target an appropriate level of challenge, and be of sufficient frequency.
The Importance of Feedback
The purpose of feedback is to help learners achieve a desired level of performance. Just like how a map provides key information about a traveler’s current position to help him or her find an efficient route to a destination, effective feedback provides information about a learner’s current state of knowledge and performance that can guide them in working toward the learning goal. Effective feedback should communicate to students where they are relative to the intended learning goals, what they need to do to improve, and should be communicated to students when they can make the most use of it and improve their future performance.
What makes Feedback Effective?
Not all feedback is necessarily helpful to students, and there is an important difference between formative and summative feedback. Formative feedback provides information that helps students progress towards meeting the intended learning goals of an assignment. Summative feedback gives students a final judgment or evaluation of proficiency, such as grades or scores.
Consider, for example, a GPS system. It has the capability of tracking a traveler’s current position relative to a destination. To be helpful, a GPS needs to communicate more than the fact that the traveler is far away from the destination. Ideally, it will identify how far the traveler is from the destination and provide directions to help the traveler reach it. Similarly, effective feedback needs to do more than simply tell a student that he or she is wrong. Effective feedback involves giving students a clear picture of how their current knowledge or performance differs from the learning goals and providing information on adjustments that can be made to help students reach that goal.
The timing of feedback is also important. Continuing with our GPS example, a GPS system will give feedback to a driver when the driver needs it. Ideally, this will be multiple times before they reach their final destination. So too, with students. Typically, the earlier and more often that feedback can be provided to students, the better. More frequent feedback generally leads to more efficient learning because it helps students stay on track and address their errors before they become entrenched (Hattie & Timperley, 2007).
The following strategies can help you implement effective practice opportunities for students in your course and provide efficient and effective feedback opportunities.
- Conduct a prior knowledge assessment to target an appropriate challenge level. This can help you, as an instructor, get a sense of students’ strengths and weaknesses.
- Be more explicit about your goals for the course. This way, students don’t have to assume things
- Use a rubric to specify and communicate performance criteria
- Build in multiple opportunities for practice
- Give examples or models of target performance
- Look for patterns of errors in student work, and communicate your findings to the whole class
- Prioritize feedback, focusing on key aspects of assignments or one dimension at a time
- Balance strengths and weaknesses in feedback. This can help students keep track of their progress
- Incorporate peer feedback
Principle #6: Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning
While our role as educators is focused on developing students’ intellectual and creative skills, it is important to recognize that students are not just intellectual beings, but also emotional and social beings. These emotional and social dimensions interact within the classroom climate to influence student learning and performance. A positive climate can energize students and keep them motivated to succeed, while a negative classroom environment can hinder learning and development.
The Chickering Model of Student Development
Chickering (1969) provides a model to account for the developmental changes that students experience through their university or college career. They are grouped into seven vectors, and each vector builds on the other vectors. Please click on the red plus signs in each vector to learn more about that vector.
Perry (1968) presents a model of intellectual development that describes a student’s transition from simplistic to more nuanced ways of thinking. Generally, there are four stages of intellectual development.
Course climate refers to the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments in which our students learn, and can be thought of as operating on a continuum. Please click on the red plus signs for an explanation of each stage in the continuum.
A course climate is often determined by a host of different factors, such as stereotypes, tone, faculty-student and student-student interaction, and content.
The following strategies can help you foster a more inclusive course climate.
- Make uncertainty safe by validating different viewpoints
- Resist a single correct answer when appropriate
- Examine and reflect on your assumptions about students
- Model inclusive language, behaviour, and attitudes
- Use multiple and diverse examples
- Establish and reinforce ground rules for interaction
- Facilitate active listening
- Turn discord and tension into valuable learning opportunities
To test your knowledge of the different kinds of course climate, consider the statements below and match the correct course climate to the corresponding example.
Principle #7: To become self-directed learners, students must learn to assess the demands of the task, evaluate their own knowledge and skills, plan their approach, monitor their progress, and adjust their strategies as needed
This principle outlines the key metacognitive skills that are critical to becoming a self-directed learner. Metacognition refers to the “process of reflecting on and directing one’s own thinking.” (National Research Council, 2001, p 78). As students progress through university and eventually their careers, they will take on more complex tasks and bear greater responsibility for their own learning, and so reflecting on and directing one’s own thinking will be very important.
The Cycle of Self Directed Learning
Researchers have proposed various models to describe how students would ideally apply metacognitive skills to learn and perform well (see, for example, Brown et al, 1983; Butler, 1997; Pintrich, 2000; Winnie & Hadwin, 1998). These models all share the idea that learners need to engage in a variety of processes to monitor and control their learning (Zimmerman, 2001). These models often take the form of the following cycle. Please click on the red plus signs in each stage of the cycle to learn more about each stage in the cycle.
The following strategies can help you develop your students into more self-directed learners.
- Be more explicit than you think is necessary when outlining assignment instructions
- Tell students what you do not want
- Use rubrics to measure learning
- Provide opportunities for students to assess themselves
- Have students make their own plan for an assignment, and/or make creating a plan a central goal of the assignment
- Use peer review/reader response
- Require students to reflect on and annotate their own work
- Present multiple strategies for completing an assignment
Conclusion & References
Thank you for completing this workshop on the Seven Research Based Principles for Smart Teaching! To recap, the seven research based principles are:
- Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning
- How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they learn
- Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn
- Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn
- Goal-directed practice, combined with targeted feedback, enhances the quality of students’ learning
- Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning
- To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning
These principles are interconnected – many of the problems learners encounter stem from an interaction of intellectual, social, and emotional factors. Your pedagogical solutions should address all these facets at once, which is achievable because these principles work together to provide such solutions.
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