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Principles To Teach By

These excerpts from Tom Angelo’s article published in the AAHE Bulletin, A “Teacher’s Dozen”: Fourteen General, Research-Based Principles for Improving Higher Learning in Our Classrooms, describe some of what research has to tell us about the nature of learning.

While few savvy faculty would argue that we know nothing useful about learning, many still protest that we don’t yet know enough to inform teaching practice. It is true that there’s still much to discover, but at the same time we do collectively know a great deal about how people learn. Solid research by cognitive scientists, psychologists, ethnographers and other researchers offers much more direction to college teachers of the 1990s than was available even a decade ago. To argue that we shouldn’t use what we know in teaching because our knowledge is incomplete is like arguing that sailors shouldn’t use available knowledge about weather and currents in navigation because that knowledge is incomplete. Only by using what we already know can we learn more.

A “Teacher’s Dozen”
Active learning is more effective than passive learning.
Active learning occurs when students invest physical and mental energies in activities that help them make what they are learning meaningful, and when they are aware of that meaning-making. As George Stoddard put it, “We learn to do neither by thinking nor by doing; we learn to do by thinking about what we are doing.”

Implications/Applications: Having students teach or explain something to others helps them learn it much more effectively, especially if they actively rehearse that “lesson” ahead of time and get feedback. To assess actively, ask students to paraphrase a central concept in a couple of sentences for one specific audience, and then to paraphrase the same explanation for a completely different audience. The two audiences might be parents and children, professionals and lay people, novices and experts. Assess these directed paraphrases for both accuracy and appropriateness.

Learning requires focused attention, and awareness of the importance of what is to be learned.
One of the most difficult tasks for novice learners in a field is to figure out what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Students in introductory courses often cannot tell what is central from what is peripheral.

Implications/Applications: You can help novices by pointing out some of the major landmarks, by writing a list of the five key points in your lecture on the board before class, for example. You can also assess how well they are learning to read the “maps” those lectures or readings provide. Using a “Minute Paper” to find out what students thought were the most important points in a lecture or reading and what questions they still have can provide useful information on where they are getting lost (see Classroom Assessment Tip for details).

Learning is more effective and efficient when learners have explicit, reasonable, positive goals and when their goals fit well with the teacher’s goals.
When learners know what their educational goals are and figure out how they can best achieve them [and when they] know how and how well their goals fit the instructor’s they tend to learn more and get better grades.

Implications/Applications: Early in the term, ask students to write down a few specific learning goals they hope to achieve. Then involve them in comparing their learning goals with those of other students, and with your teaching goals. Look for and build on areas of congruence, but don’t gloss over potential conflicts or disconnects.

To be remembered, new information must be meaningfully connected to prior knowledge, and it must first be remembered in order to be learned.
The more meaningful and appropriate connections students make between what they know and what they are learning, the more permanently they will anchor new information in long-term memory and the easier it will be for them to access that information when it’s needed.

Implications/Applications: Provide many and varied examples/illustrations, descriptions/drawings, images, metaphors and analogies. But ask students to provide them as well, then give the students feedback on their usefulness and appropriateness. For instance, two simple ways to help students make connections, and to assess the connections they make, are to ask them to compose a metaphor (“Learning is _____”) or an analogy (“Teaching is to learning as _____ is to _____”).

Unlearning what is already known is often more difficult than learning new information.
Habits, preconceptions and misconceptions can be formidable barriers to new learning, all the more treacherous because, like icebergs, this prior learning is usually 90 percent hidden from view.

Implications/Applications: Before you present new material, find out what students already believe and know….A quick diagnostic “probe,” containing a few questions, often can help you locate dangerous [misconceptions].

Information organized in personally meaningful ways is more likely to be retained, learned and used.
Humans seek regularity and meaning constantly and we create them when they are not apparent….To be most useful, the ways learners organize knowledge in a given domain need to become ever more similar to the ways experts in that field organize knowledge. This requires making what is usually implicit, explicit.

Implications/Applications: Show students a number of different, useful and acceptable ways to organize the same information. Use prose, outlines, graphs, drawings and models. Assess students’ organizing skills by [examining] their “mental models.”

Learners need feedback on their learning, early and often, to learn well; to become independent, they need to learn how to give themselves feedback.
Regular feedback helps learners efficiently direct their attention and energies, helps them avoid major errors and dead ends, and keeps them from learning things they later will have to unlearn at great cost. It can also serve as a motivating form of interaction between teacher and learner and among learners.

Implications/Applications: Don’t assume students understand, ask. Try asking them to jot down what the “muddiest point” was in a particular reading, lab or lecture, then respond to the most common “muddy points” in your next class. Find out what students are doing with the feedback you’re already giving them. Do they read and use the comments you write on papers and exams? Explicitly demonstrate how you get feedback on your work and what you do with it.

The ways in which learners are assessed and evaluated powerfully affect the ways they study and learn.
For generations uncounted, students have annoyed their teachers with the question; “Will this be on the final?” Knowing what will be on the final, or any upcoming test, helps students figure out where to focus their attention….One way to improve learning, then, is to make sure our test questions require the kind of thinking and learning we wish to promote, and that students know—at least generally—what those questions will be.


Implications/Applications: Once you’re sure your questions are testing what you want students to learn, give them a sample exam or a list of study questions from which exam questions will be selected. Give students regular opportunities to practice answering similar questions and get feedback on their answers. If students work in study groups, corrective feedback can come from their peers.

Mastering a skill or body of knowledge takes great amounts of time and effort.
In a study of talented young adults…Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues found that… at least 15,000 to 30,000 hours of time and intense practice were required to reach the highest level of mastery in a variety of fields. If we halve those figures to “guesstimate” the time needed to achieve an acceptable mastery level, we’re still left with about 7,000 to 15,000 hours of preparation.

Implications/Applications: Students need to know how long it actually takes to attain mastery in their field. Then they need to find out how much time they are actually devoting to the task. Give students a simple form on which they can log all the times they study/practice for a week and how productively they used each block of time.

Learning to transfer, to apply previous knowledge and skills to new contexts, requires a great deal of practice.
Most learning is highly context-bound, and few students become skilled at applying what they’ve learned in one context to another similar context. In fact, many students cannot recognize things they’ve already learned if the context is shifted at all. This is one reason students will point at questions that are only slightly altered versions of homework questions and protest, “We’ve never done problems like these before!”

Implications/Applications: If you value transfer, teach transfer. Direct students’ attention continually [to both] the general and the specific. Give them many different examples of the same concepts or principles, and make sure they see where the similarities and the differences are. Challenge students to identify and then create similar but different examples or problems.

High expectations encourage high achievement.
For some time now, we’ve known that younger students tend to achieve more by working with teachers who expect more of them…. For [this effect] to work students must share the teacher’s high expectations themselves and perceive them as reasonable.

Implications/Applications: Begin by finding out what your students expect of themselves in your class, letting them know what you expect and discussing those expectations. Begin the course with assignments that diligent students can succeed in. Have learners interview successful former students, or invite them to class, to illustrate that high expectations can be realized.

To be most effective, teachers need to balance levels of intellectual challenge and instructional support.
The weaker the student’s foundation in the subject, the stronger the instructional “scaffolding” (structure and support) required. This is one of the reasons…students in the third year generally require less structure and direction [than those in a first-year course] in the same discipline. This also helps explain why students of lower ability or weaker preparation often benefit from and appreciate highly structured courses.

Implications/Applications: Even when learner ability or preparation or both are weak, expectations should remain high. To reach those expectations, less-prepared students will need more explicit instructional “scaffolding,” such as tutoring, highly structured directions, and more personal contact with the instructor. Students who are better prepared can be encouraged to master their learning by serving as tutors, help create scaffolding for others, and take responsibility for their own learning through independent studies.

Motivation to learn is alterable; it can be positively or negatively affected by the task, the environment, the teacher and the learner.
Though we tend to talk about students being either “motivated” or “not motivated,” most students are very motivated to learn certain things and not at all motivated to learn others. Research suggests that you stand a good chance of increasing motivation to learn if you can positively influence your students’ beliefs and expectations about one or more of the following:…if they see the value of what you’re teaching; believe learning it will help them achieve important goals; believe they are capable of learning it; and expect they will succeed.

Implications/Applications: Give students lots of specific examples of the value and usefulness of what they’re learning and help them make connections between short-term course goals and their own long-term goals. Use simple, anonymous surveys to gauge students’ expectations, beliefs and self-confidence levels, then respond to that information with specific examples and encouragement.

Interaction between teachers and learners is one of the most powerful factors in promoting learning; interaction among learners is another.
It isn’t interaction in and of itself that promotes academic learning, it’s structured interaction focused on achieving meaningful, shared learning tasks. Our students need to learn to work more effectively in teams.

Implications/Applications: Most students have to believe teachers know and care about them before they can benefit from interactions—or even interact. Learn students’ names as a first step, then try to engage them in working with you to learn. If you want students to cooperate effectively with other students, first, challenge them with assignments that groups can carry out more effectively than individuals can; second, provide guidelines and guidance for group work, especially for those who haven’t had experience and third de-emphasize competition among individuals for grades and approval.

Angelo, T. A. 1993. A teacher’s dozen: Fourteen general, research-based principles for improving higher learning in our classrooms. AAHE Bulletin 45 (8): 3–13.