We are continually trying to improve this course, so the exact content changes from one run to the next, but the exercises we do have settled into more-or-less the following form:

  • Introductions: novice vs. competent practitioner vs. expert
  • Concept maps as a design and communication tool
  • Motivation and demotivation
  • Formative vs. summative assessment and reverse instructional design
  • Collaborative lesson development
  • Teaching a lesson online

It’s all very well to know how the brain works, or how society’s needs and expectations shape our ideas about learning, but eventually we have to decide how to translate those ideas into actual teaching. One of the best guides to doing this that we have found is the book How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, by Ambrose et al (Jossey-Bass, 2010). Their advice is based in equal parts on theory, research, and experience, and while some of their recommendations may seem banal when summarized, the full-length explanations in the book itself are not. Over the course of many years, Ambrose et al claim that they have found these principles to be:

  1. domain-independent: they apply equally well across all subject areas;
  2. experience-independent: they apply to all educational levels and learning situations; and
  3. cross-cultural: although it is always important to remember that culture influences how the principles should be applied in particular situations.

1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.

Students come to courses and other learning situations with knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes gained in the rest of their lives. This knowledge influences how they filter and interpret what they are learning. If students’ prior knowledge is accurate, and is switched on at the right times, it provides a strong foundation for building new knowledge. On the other hand, when that knowledge is inert, wrong, insufficient, or switched on inappropriately, it will interfere with learning.


  1. Methods to Gauge the Extent and Nature of Students’ Prior Knowledge
    1. Talk to colleagues.
    2. Administer a diagnostic assessment.
    3. Have students assess their own prior knowledge.
    4. Use brainstorming to reveal prior knowledge.
    5. Assign a concept map activity.
    6. Look for patterns of error in student work.
  2. Methods to Activate Accurate Prior Knowledge
    1. Use exercises to generate students’ prior knowledge.
    2. Explicitly link new material to knowledge from previous courses.
    3. Explicitly link new material to prior knowledge from your own course.
    4. Use analogies and examples that connect to students’ everyday knowledge.
    5. Ask students to reason on the basis of relevant prior knowledge.
  3. Methods to Address Insufficient Prior Knowledge
    1. Identify the prior knowledge you expect students to have.
    2. Remediate insufficient prerequisite knowledge.
  4. Methods to Help Students Recognize Inappropriate Prior Knowledge
    1. Highlight conditions of applicability.
    2. Provide heuristics to help students avoid inappropriate application of knowledge.
    3. Explicitly identify discipline-specific conventions.
    4. Show where analogies break down.
  5. Methods to Correct Inaccurate Knowledge
    1. Ask students to make and test predictions.
    2. Ask students to justify their reasoning.
    3. Provide multiple opportunities for students to use accurate knowledge.
    4. Allow sufficient time.

2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and how they apply what they know.

Students naturally make connections between different bits of knowledge. When those connections form structures that are accurately and meaningfully organized, students can retrieve and apply their knowledge faster and more accurately. When knowledge is connected in inaccurate or random ways, on the other hand, they either won’t retrieve it or will apply it inappropriately.


  1. Create a concept map to analyze your own knowledge organization.
  2. Analyze tasks to identify the most appropriate knowledge organization.
  3. Provide students with the organizational structure of the course.
  4. Explicitly share the organization of each lecture, lab, or discussion.
  5. Use contrasting and boundary cases to highlight organizing features.
  6. Explicitly highlight deep features.
  7. Make connections among concepts explicit.
  8. Encourage students to work with multiple organizing structures.
  9. Ask students to draw a concept map to expose their knowledge organizations.
  10. Use a sorting task to expose students’ knowledge organizations.
  11. Monitor students’ work for problems in their knowledge organizations.

3. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.

Motivation is critical in guiding the direction, depth, and persistence of learning. When students think a learning goal or activity is valuable, when they expect to achieve a desired learning outcome, and when they believe their environment is supportive, they are more likely to learn.


  1. Strategies to Establish Value
    1. Connect the material to students’ interests.
    2. Provide authentic, real-world tasks.
    3. Show relevance to students’ current academic lives.
    4. Demonstrate the relevance of higher-level skills to students’ future professional lives.
    5. Identify and reward what you value.
    6. Show your own passion and enthusiasm for the discipline.
  2. Strategies That Help Students Build Positive Expectancies
    1. Ensure alignment of objectives, assessments, and instructional strategies.
    2. Identify an appropriate level of challenge.
    3. Create assignments that provide the appropriate level of challenge.
    4. Provide early success opportunities.
    5. Articulate your expectations.
    6. Provide rubrics.
    7. Provide targeted feedback.
    8. Be fair.
    9. Educate students about the ways we explain success and failure.
    10. Describe effective study strategies.
  3. Strategies That Address Value and Expectancies
    1. Provide flexibility and control.
    2. Give students an opportunity to reflect.

4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.

It’s not enough to have individual pieces of knowledge; students must also practise combining them in order for practice to become fluent and automatic. To do this, students must learn when and how to apply their skills and knowledge. Instructors therefore need to be conscious of the “when” and “how” as well as the “what” in order to help students.


  1. Strategies to Expose and Reinforce Component Skills
    1. Push past your own expert blind spot.
    2. Enlist a teaching assistant or graduate student to help with task decomposition.
    3. Talk to your colleagues.
    4. Enlist the help of someone outside your discipline.
    5. Explore available educational materials.
    6. Focus students’ attention on key aspects of the task.
    7. Diagnose weak or missing component skills.
    8. Provide isolated practice of weak or missing skills.
  2. Strategies to Build Fluency and Facilitate Integration
    1. Give students practice to increase fluency.
    2. Temporarily constrain the scope of the task.
    3. Explicitly include integration in your performance criteria.
  3. Strategies to Facilitate Transfer
    1. Discuss conditions of applicability.
    2. Give students opportunities to apply skills or knowledge in diverse contexts.
    3. Ask students to generalize to larger principles.
    4. Use comparisons to help students identify deep features.
    5. Specify context and ask students to identify relevant skills or knowledge.
    6. Specify skills or knowledge and ask students to identify contexts in which they apply.
    7. Provide prompts to relevant knowledge.

5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning.

Learning happens best and fastest when practice focuses on specific goals, is challenging without being overwhelming, and is repeated often enough for lessons to sink in. Practice must be coupled with feedback that explicitly tells students how they are doing relative to specific targets; this feedback must include specific information to help students improve, and this information must be given prompty after performance so that what students did is fresh in their minds.


  1. Strategies Addressing the Need for Goal-Directed Practice
    1. Conduct a prior knowledge assessment to target an appropriate challenge level.
    2. Be more explicit about your goals in your course materials.
    3. Use a rubric to specify and communicate performance criteria.
    4. Build in multiple opportunities for practice.
    5. Build scaffolding into assignments.
    6. Set expectations about practice.
    7. Give examples or models of target performance.
    8. Show students what you do not want.
    9. Refine your goals and performance criteria as the course progresses.
  2. Strategies Addressing the Need for Targeted Feedback
    1. Look for patterns of error in student work.
    2. Prioritize your feedback.
    3. Balance strengths and weaknesses in your feedback.
    4. Design frequent opportunities to give feedback.
    5. Provide feedback at the group level.
    6. Provide real-time feedback at the group level.
    7. Incorporate peer feedback.
    8. Require students to specify how they used feedback in subsequent work.

6. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.

Students are not disembodied intellects: they have social and emotional lives. They are growing and maturing as people throughout their lives, and while teachers cannot control this process, teachers must establish a classroom climate that supports it.


  1. Resist a single right answer.
  2. Incorporate evidence into performance and grading criteria.
  3. Examine your assumptions about students.
  4. Be mindful of low-ability cues.
  5. Do not ask individuals to speak for an entire group.
  6. Reduce anonymity.
  7. Model inclusive language, behavior, and attitudes.
  8. Use multiple and diverse examples.
  9. Establish and reinforce ground rules for interaction.
  10. Make sure course content does not marginalize students.
  11. Use the syllabus and first day of class to establish the course climate.
  12. Set up processes to get feedback on the climate.
  13. Anticipate and prepare for potentially sensitive issues.
  14. Address tensions early.
  15. Turn discord and tension into a learning opportunity.
  16. Facilitate active listening.

7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.

Students should use a wide variety of meta-level techniques 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 double-checking whether their chosen approach is working. However, most students don’t do these things naturally. Teaching them to do so improves their current performance, and also the long-term effectiveness of their learning.


  1. Assessing the Task at Hand
    1. Be more explicit than you may think necessary.
    2. Tell students what you do not want.
    3. Check students’ understanding of the task.
    4. Provide performance criteria with the assignment.
  2. Evaluating One’s Own Strengths and Weaknesses
    1. Give early, performance-based assessments.
    2. Provide opportunities for self-assessment.
  3. Planning an Appropriate Approach
    1. Have students implement a plan that you provide.
    2. Have students create their own plan.
    3. Make planning the central goal of the assignment.
  4. Applying Strategies and Monitoring Performance
    1. Provide simple heuristics for self-correction.
    2. Have students do guided self-assessments.
    3. Require students to reflect on and annotate their own work.
    4. Use peer review/reader response.
  5. Reflecting On and Adjusting One’s Approach
    1. Provide activities that require students to reflect on their performances.
    2. Prompt students to analyze the effectiveness of their study skills.
    3. Present multiple strategies.
    4. Create assignments that focus on strategizing rather than implementation.
  6. Beliefs About Intelligence and Learning
    1. Address students’ beliefs about learning directly.
    2. Broaden students’ understanding of learning.
    3. Help students set realistic expectations.