Thursday, January 13, 2011

Understanding How Learning Works

When it comes to teaching, most of us are still learning. Teaching is a complex activity, and yet most of us have not received formal training in pedagogy. Furthermore, teaching is a highly contextualized activity because it is shaped by the students we have, advancements in our respective fields, changes in technology, and so on. Therefore, our teaching must constantly adapt to changing parameters” -- Ambrose et al., 2010, How Learning Works.

Constructivism, behaviorism, pedagody, andragogy, Bloom Taxonomy, student-centered learning...?? I must humbly admit that, after more than 16 years teaching, I didn’t know much about the various learning theories and pedagogical aspects of teaching-learning. I’m not trained as a teacher – I’m a food technologist. My only experience in teaching was teaching my friends and a short stint teaching in a private school (secondary level). Soon after I completed my Ph.D. in Food Technology, I came back and joined the university as a lecturer – and I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to teach the adult students! I think most university lecturers (except those from education background) do not have sufficient knowledge and exposure on pedagogy, learning theory or instructional methods. Of course, there are “induction” courses and other programs conducted by the university for young lecturers but these are still largely inadequate to equip them to become good educators. So we end up using our best teacher/lecturer during our school/university days as a role model and try to emulate them.

It is clear to me how much more there is to learn, how much more there is to do. The knowledge in the subject matter alone is not sufficient for effective teaching. Developing mastery in teaching is a continuous learning process. Therefore, I continue to learn and enrich my knowledge so that I can be a better teacher for my students. Not having a formal training in teaching is not an excuse for not doing anything to improve my teaching skills. I know that if I want to improve my teaching and enhance students’ learning, it is useful to understand what research says about how learning works and about how to foster learning. To achieve this aim, I try to read as many books and articles on teaching and learning philosophy. I’m constantly on the lookout for a book which can explain and summarise the philosophy of learning in a simplest manner without ambiguous jargons that distract the unmotivated readers.

To my delight, recently I found two books which fulfil my criteria – simple, concise, straight to the point, well organized, and clearly written. Here I’d like to write a bit about the first book which I’m still reading – How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. The authors are principally from Carnege Mellons' Centre for Teaching Excellence (S.A. Ambrose, M. Dipietro, M.C. Lovett, M.K. Norman), and also including one (M.W. Bridges) from the University of Pittsburgh.

The book is organized around seven learning 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) To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned; (5) Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning; (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.

Each learning principle forms a stand-alone chapter (so there are 7 chapters); each chapter is further expanded with a discussion of the research that supports them, their implications for teaching, and a set of instructional strategies targeting each principle. Clear understanding of all the seven principles would help teachers (a) to see why certain teaching approaches are or are not supporting students’ learning, (b) generate or refine teaching approaches and strategies that more effectively foster student learning in specific contexts, and (c) transfer and apply these principles to new courses.

I especially like the approach taken by the authors to start each chapter with stories that represent typical teaching situation. Under a heading “What Principle of Learning is at Work Here?” the stories are analysed to identify the core problems or issues involved and use them to introduce the learning principle relevant to those problems. The learning principle is discussed and elaborated in relation to the research that underlies it. Finally, the authors provide a set of strategies to help teachers to design instruction with that principle in mind.

I would recommend all educators to read this book! I hope to find time to summarize the important points of each chapter in the form of PowerPoint presentation which I will upload to YouTube or Slideshare. Follow me to get the update!


  1. I really enjoyed reading this article. I too am not a professionally trained teacher, except for taking TESOL training and now I am pursuing further professional development as an ESL teacher, taking different courses related specifically to ESL learners. I have joined EVO 2011, an online professional development seminar hosted by Webheads in Action. I am learning many new things to enhance my skills as a teacher and to help my students learn better. I liked the book review you wrote and will try to get a hold of a copy of it to check it out. Also, I like the design of your blog. I just published my blog a week ago and I need to add a few different categories so I can post websites and articles of interest for others to read on my blog. I look forward to reading more of your articles on teaching. My blog can be found at: Have a great day!

  2. Hi Darlene! Greetings from Malaysia. Welcome and thanks for visiting my blog. I'm always get excited talking to fellow educators about teaching & learning or education in general. I will visit your blog. I guess we can learn from each other.