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Principles of Learning

Seven Princples of How Learning Works

From the book, How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching and summarized from webpage at Carnegie Mellon University

This PDF of a keynote talk by one of the authors presenting to teachers but he nicely highlights each principle with examples – PDF Slidedeck. Take a skim over these seven key principles for how learning works. Based on decades of research, these seven principles guide how learners are successful or not in their lives.

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

2. How you organize knowledge influences how you learn and apply what you know.
You naturally make connections between pieces of knowledge. When those connections form knowledge structures that are accurately and meaningfully organized, you are better able to retrieve and apply your knowledge effectively and efficiently. In contrast, when knowledge is connected in inaccurate or random ways, you can fail to retrieve or apply it appropriately. How accurately and meaningfully you organize your old and new knowledge is critical to how you learn, remember and retrieve information.

3. Your motivation determines, directs, and sustains what you do to learn.
As you gain greater autonomy over what, when, and how you study and learn, motivation plays a critical role in guiding the direction, intensity, persistence, and quality of the learning behaviors in which you engage. There is much more autonomy over your learning in post-secondary education than there was in high school. When you find positive value in a learning goal or activity, and you expect to successfully achieve a desired learning outcome, and perceive support from your environment, you are likely to be strongly motivated to learn. Motivation plays a key role in all stages of learning.

4. To develop mastery, you must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what you have learned.
You must develop not only the component skills and knowledge necessary to perform complex tasks, you must also practice combining and integrating them to develop greater fluency and automaticity. Finally, you must learn when and how to apply the skills and knowledge you learn. Learning is about breaking down a concept or skill and getting really good at each of the smaller component skills.

5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of your learning.
Learning and performance are best fostered when you engage in practice that focuses on a specific goal or criterion, targets an appropriate level of challenge, and is of sufficient quantity and frequency to meet the performance criteria. Practice must be coupled with feedback that explicitly communicates about some aspect(s) of your performance relative to specific target criteria, provides information to help you progress in meeting those criteria, and is given at a time and frequency that allows it to be useful. Students – you must seek out feedback from peers, instructors, family and others – but also learn to reflect and consider your own internal feedback on how your learning is going.

6. Your current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.
You are not only intellectual but also social and emotional beings, and you are still developing the full range of intellectual, social, and emotional skills. While instructors and teachers can’t control your developmental process, they can shape the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical aspects of classroom climate in developmentally appropriate ways. In fact, many studies have shown that the climate instructors create has implications for your learning. A negative climate may impede learning and performance, but a positive climate can energize your learning.

7. To become self-directed learners, you must learn how to monitor and adjust your approaches to learning.
You may engage in a variety of metacognitive processes to monitor and control your learning—assessing the task at hand, evaluating your own strengths and weaknesses, planning your approach, applying and monitoring various strategies, and reflecting on the degree to which your current approach is working. Unfortunately, you don’t tend not to engage in these processes naturally. When you develop the skills to engage these processes, you gain intellectual habits that not only improve your performance but also your effectiveness as learners. Check out the learning strategies listed in this section to learn more ways to monitor and adjust your approaches to learning.

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