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How Students Learn

Three students walking through the neighborhood
Faculty often begin course design by focusing on the course content—what to teach. It is equally important to consider what students need to learn, and how learning works in general. The following resources suggest how to incorporate research-based principles and theories of learning into course design.

How Learning Works

Susan Ambrose and four of her colleagues published How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching in 2010, to much critical acclaim. Ambrose, who is a Senior Vice Provost at Northeastern University, gives an overview of the seven principles in the video below. While she addresses an engineering audience in the webinar, the principles apply to most disciplines.

Ambrose's Seven Principles

  1. Students' prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.
  2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.
  3. Students' motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.
  4. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances quality of students' learning.
  5. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply them.
  6. Students' current level of development interacts with the social, emotional and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.
  7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.

Motivating Students

The third of Ambrose's principles involves student motivation: Discover some practical strategies for motivating students here.

More Theories of Learning

  • The Chronicle of Higher Education provides a brief overview of learning models, including the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic model; Kolb’s model; the cognitive ability model; and the personality style model.
  • The National Academies Press provides an electronic text of How People Learn, by the Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. The text provides a comprehensive review of research on learning, including the design of learning environments, effective teaching, teacher learning, and technology to support learning.
  • The Instructional Design website contains brief summaries of 50 major learning theories and strategies, which can be accessed by concept or learning domain. 
  • William J. Rappaport from SUNY Buffalo provides a brief overview of Perry's scheme of intellectual and ethical development

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Reading publications on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning will provide instructors with theoretical and practical information from a field that is constantly contributing insights on how people learn and how that research can be applied to teaching and learning.