It is hard to find a good book for post-secondary education. Students at the college level are expected to already know how to study and learn and professors are often not expected to be good teachers as much as good researchers who also have to do some teaching.

How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching looks to provide some research backed information on how learning actually happens and what common pitfalls different professors fall into when trying to educate their classes. The authors, Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Marsha C. Lovett, Michele DiPietro and Marie K. Norman, are from Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, some of the hotspots for learning science in the past few years. 

This is a good handbook for professors and what makes it even better is that the authors and publishers stood behind the ideas enough that they made it free online. Even though it is an older book, the problems they are addressing are still endemic to the system today.

The book is well structured and each area could be read on its own to address a “just in time” teaching strategy gap that a professor has, or can be read as a whole to understand more fully what the book is trying to convey. It is really a handbook for teachers and people who are subject matter experts already and won’t necessarily teach you how to learn better.

The book begins with a definition of learning. The authors define learning as “a process that involves change that unfolds over time and is a result of how students interpret and respond to their experiences”. The introduction describes 7 principles of learning:.

1. Prior knowledge can serve to help or hinder learning

Prior knowledge is broadened to include any knowledge on course content or words associated with course content that might affect a student’s understanding of the course. The example given is “negative reinforcement” which most students and probably most people assume is a euphemism for “punishment” when in fact it is removal of a stimulus to reduce the behavior. For instance reducing the amount of WORK ON THIS

2. Organization of knowledge impacts how students learn and apply what they know

The common example here is a timeline versus a topic grouping. Timeline of events can be very useful when understanding how certain events led to the next event in a series like understanding how the Storming of the Bastille led to the flight of the emigres from revolutionary France, but might be a little less useful to include the fact that shortly thereafter the US started enforcing the Tariff Act. 

3. Motivation determines, directs, and sustains what students learn

In some ways this is one of the toughest chapters to summarize because the topic of motivation is so complex and debated. It glosses over the concept of “growth mindset” and was published before Angela Duckworth wrote Grit so it gets a bit of a pass there. But understanding motivation for learning or for any kind of behavior change is literally the million dollar question and this book did not go especially far in fleshing that out.

4. Mastery means students must develop the skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply them

Mastery learning has been a buzzword for a bit and has been a favorite topic for Sal Khan to discuss at least since his 2016 Ted Talk. But none of that makes this any less important or relevant to investigate. The book reminds teachers that students will often “practice” until they can get the answer right once but not until they stop getting the answer wrong, the second of which is far more indicative of mastery.

And given the rate that students already struggle to write 5 paragraph essays, it seems like a pretty good idea to focus on mastery of fewer topics than passing familiarity with more.

5. Practice and Feedback that is goal-directed and targeted enhances learning.

Much of this section is devoted to the question of “what makes good feedback” and trying to explain why it is so hard to give well timed feedback and how a teacher might attempt to do so. The inclination to incorporate peer feedback is a good one provided that peers can be taught to give good feedback.

6. Development and Course climate interact to impact learning. 

Teachers need to think about the students’ development and background as they teach. This could be overwhelming to teachers. It would be very hard to not only pay attention to individual students’ work and where they need help in the work itself but also pay attention to their emotional social experiences which are different for each student. It’s a lot to ask of one person and I do wonder if that’s one of the reasons the teachers are leaving the profession. They must feel like failures a lot of the time. The concept of “identity” is folded into this chapter and isn’t really given its due, which is part of the reason why the second edition of the book (released this year) includes it as the eighth principal.

7. Self-Monitoring and Self-Adjusting is necessary for learners to build on their knowledge.

Professors are often made up of the students who were the most self directed, and that can make it easy to forget that most students need to be taught to be self directed learners. A self-directed learner can assess a task, monitor her own preparation and performance, and use reflection to develop new strategies for improving. While this is far easier to say than to implement, even for us theoretically self-directed adults, it is an important issue to ruminate on.

The general structure of the chapters is as follows:

  • Two concise case study stories that illustrate the chapter’s theme.
  • A section summarizing “What Is Going On In These Stories?” This provides a clear overview of the challenges associated with the theme.
  • A section on “What Principle Of Learning Is At Work Here?”
  • A section on “What does Research Tell Us About <The Theme Of The Chapter>?”
  • A section on the “Implications Of This Research” for understanding student learning and teaching.
  • A section on “What Strategies Does the Research Suggest” for improving student learning and teaching.
  • A final “Summary” section.

This book is a good summary of the research around teaching. It is best read as a “survey of the research” rather than as an attempt to sell a new breakthrough idea, as Growth Mindset and Grit were. It would be difficult as a tool for teachers just starting out, but could be very useful for  experienced teachers to the next level. In some ways it is hard to find a lot of really concrete pieces to grab onto here, and that can make it a bit of a struggle for those not already versed in the learning sciences.

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