Teaching & Learning
The following list presents the basic principles that underlie effective learning. These principles are distilled
from research from a variety of disciplines.
1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.
Students come into our courses with knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes gained in other courses and through
daily life. As students bring this knowledge to bear in our classrooms, it influences how they filter and
interpret what they are learning. If students’ prior knowledge is robust and accurate and activated at the
appropriate time, it provides a strong foundation for building new knowledge. However, when knowledge is
inert, insufficient for the task, activated inappropriately, or inaccurate, it can interfere with or impede new
3. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.
Students naturally make connections between pieces of knowledge. When those connections form knowledge
structures that are accurately and meaningfully organized, students are better able to retrieve and apply their
knowledge effectively and efficiently. In contrast, when knowledge is connected in inaccurate or random
ways, students can fail to retrieve or apply it appropriately.
4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know
when to apply what they have learned.
Students must develop not only the component skills and knowledge necessary to perform complex tasks,
they must also practice combining and integrating them to develop greater fluency and automaticity. Finally,
students must learn when and how to apply the skills and knowledge they learn. As instructors, it is
important that we develop conscious awareness of these elements of mastery so as to help our students learn
5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning.
Learning and performance are best fostered when students 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 students’ performance relative to specific target criteria, provides information to help students
progress in meeting those criteria, and is given at a time and frequency that allows it to be useful.
6. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of
the course to impact learning.
Students are not only intellectual but also social and emotional beings, and they are still developing the full
range of intellectual, social, and emotional skills. While we cannot control the developmental process, we 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 we create has implications for our
students. A negative climate may impede learning and performance, but a positive climate can energize
7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to
Learners may engage in a variety of metacognitive processes to monitor and control their learning—
assessing the task at hand, evaluating their own strengths and weaknesses, planning their approach, applying
and monitoring various strategies, and reflecting on the degree to which their current approach is working.
Unfortunately, students tend not to engage in these processes naturally. When students develop the skills to
engage these processes, they gain intellectual habits that not only improve their performance but also their
effectiveness as learners.
Teaching is a complex, multifaceted activity, often requiring us as instructors to juggle multiple tasks and
goals simultaneously and flexibly. The following small but powerful set of principles can make teaching both
more effective and more efficient, by helping us create the conditions that support student learning and
minimize the need for revising materials, content, and policies. While implementing these principles requires
a commitment in time and effort, it often saves time and energy later on.
1. Effective teaching involves acquiring relevant knowledge about students and using that knowledge to
inform our course design and classroom teaching.
When we teach, we do not just teach the content, we teach students the content. A variety of student
characteristics can affect learning. For example, students’ cultural and generational backgrounds influence
how they see the world; disciplinary backgrounds lead students to approach problems in different ways; and
students’ prior knowledge (both accurate and inaccurate aspects) shapes new learning. Although we cannot
adequately measure all of these characteristics, gathering the most relevant information as early as possible
in course planning and continuing to do so during the semester can (a) inform course design (e.g., decisions
about objectives, pacing, examples, format), (b) help explain student difficulties (e.g., identification of
common misconceptions), and (c) guide instructional adaptations (e.g., recognition of the need for additional
2. Effective teaching involves aligning the three major components
of instruction: learning objectives, assessments, and
Taking the time to do this upfront saves time in the end and leads to a
better course. Teaching is more effective and student learning is
enhanced when (a) we, as instructors, articulate a clear set of learning
objectives (i.e., the knowledge and skills that we expect students to
demonstrate by the end of a course); (b) the instructional activities
(e.g., case studies, labs, discussions, readings) support these learning
objectives by providing goal-oriented practice; and (c) the
assessments (e.g., tests, papers, problem sets, performances) provide
opportunities for students to demonstrate and practice the knowledge
and skills articulated in the objectives, and for instructors to offer targeted feedback that can guide further
3. Effective teaching involves articulating explicit expectations regarding learning objectives and
There is amazing variation in what is expected of students across American classrooms and even within a
given discipline. For example, what constitutes evidence may differ greatly across courses; what is
permissible collaboration in one course could be considered cheating in another. As a result, students’
expectations may not match ours. Thus, being clear about our expectations and communicating them
explicitly helps students learn more and perform better. Articulating our learning objectives (i.e., the
knowledge and skills that we expect students to demonstrate by the end of a course) gives students a clear
target to aim for and enables them to monitor their progress along the way. Similarly, being explicit about
course policies (e.g., on class participation, laptop use, and late assignment) in the syllabus and in class allows
us to resolve differences early and tends to reduce conflicts and tensions that may arise. Altogether, being
explicit leads to a more productive learning environment for all students.
Effective teaching involves prioritizing the knowledge and skills we choose to focus on.
Coverage is the enemy: Don’t try to do too much in a single course. Too many topics work against student
learning, so it is necessary for us to make decisions – sometimes difficult ones – about what we will and will
not include in a course. This involves (a) recognizing the parameters of the course (e.g., class size, students’
backgrounds and experiences, course position in the curriculum sequence, number of course units), (b)
setting our priorities for student learning, and (c) determining a set of objectives that can be reasonably
4. Effective teaching involves recognizing and overcoming our expert blind spots.
We are not our students! As experts, we tend to access and apply knowledge automatically and unconsciously
(e.g., make connections, draw on relevant bodies of knowledge, and choose appropriate strategies) and so we
often skip or combine critical steps when we teach. Students, on the other hand, don’t yet have sufficient
background and experience to make these leaps and can become confused, draw incorrect conclusions, or fail
to develop important skills. They need instructors to break tasks into component steps, explain connections
explicitly, and model processes in detail. Though it is difficult for experts to do this, we need to identify and
explicitly communicate to students the knowledge and skills we take for granted, so that students can see
expert thinking in action and practice applying it themselves.
5. Effective teaching involves adopting appropriate teaching roles to support our learning goals.
Even though students are ultimately responsible for their own learning, the roles we assume as instructors
are critical in guiding students’ thinking and behavior. We can take on a variety of roles in our teaching (e.g.,
synthesizer, moderator, challenger, commentator). These roles should be chosen in service of the learning
objectives and in support of the instructional activities. For example, if the objective is for students to be able
to analyze arguments from a case or written text, the most productive instructor role might be to frame, guide
and moderate a discussion. If the objective is to help students learn to defend their positions or creative
choices as they present their work, our role might be to challenge them to explain their decisions and
consider alternative perspectives. Such roles may be constant or variable across the semester depending on
the learning objectives.
6. Effective teaching involves progressively refining our courses based on reflection and feedback.
Teaching requires adapting. We need to continually reflect on our teaching and be ready to make changes
when appropriate (e.g., something is not working, we want to try something new, the student population has
changed, or there are emerging issues in our fields). Knowing what and how to change requires us to
examine relevant information on our own teaching effectiveness. Much of this information already exists
(e.g., student work, previous semesters’ course evaluations, dynamics of class participation), or we may need
to seek additional feedback with help from the university teaching center (e.g., interpreting early course
evaluations, conducting focus groups, designing pre- and posttests). Based on such data, we might modify the
learning objectives, content, structure, or format of a course, or otherwise adjust our teaching. Small,
purposeful changes driven by feedback and our priorities are most likely to be manageable and effective.