Principles of learning

World_Cyber_Games_2004_AuditoriumI’ve been cleaning up my office over the past few days and came across a handout that I probably received at a T&L workshop sometime during the past year, and thought I’d post a summary of it here. There is a link on the document to this online version, although the hard copy that I have has different content under the same headings. Developing learning activities that try to take into account the following principles is more likely to result in deeper learning. Note: I couldn’t help but think about how video games incorporate all of these principles, which says a lot about a) what the gaming and entertainment industries know about engagement, and b) how boring a lot of classroom activities must be for students.

  1. Prior knowledge can help or hinder learning. How we mis/understand information changes how we perceive new information. If our prior knowledge is incorrect or incomplete, it affects how we understand new things. Teachers must therefore ensure that students articulate prior knowledge, in order to correct or consolidate it.
  2. Motivation generates, directs, and sustains learning behaviour. Our interests, goals, expectations, beliefs and emotional responses directly influence how much time and effort we devote to learning.
  3. The way students organise knowledge determines how they use it. When representations of knowledge are accurately formed, we’re better able to store and retrieve new information. When knowledge is organised according to superficial features, or when the relationships are inaccurate, or when the representation is of disconnected and isolated facts, we are more likely to incorrectly organise new information.
  4. Meaningful engagement is necessary for deeper learning. Meaningful engagement leads to the formation of more connections between concepts. The more connections that exist between concepts, the more likely it is that we will be able to retrieve and use those concepts as tools, instead of having them exist as isolated facts. Examples of meaningful engagement include asking (and also answering) questions, making analogies, and using knowledge to solve problems, lead to longer lasting and stronger representations of knowledge.
  5. Mastery requires developing component skills and knowledge, synthesising, and applying them appropriately. Performance of complex tasks (e.g. writing) is composed of many interrelated but discrete component skills. In order to gain mastery of the complex task, we must first practice and gain proficiency in the component skills, and then organise and itnegrate them into a coherent whole. These new skills must also be practiced in different contexts, which enables us to transfer the skills from one place to another.
  6. Goal-directed practice and targeted feedback are critical to learning. Learning is enhanced when we work towards a specific level of performance and regularly evaluate our progress against a clearly defined goal. Feedback should explicitly relate performance to the goal criteria, should be timely, frequent and constructive, and there must be opportunities to use the feedback in future activities.
  7. Students must learn to monitor, evaluate and adjust their approaches to learning to become self-directed learners. We must learn to be conscious of our own thinking process (metacognition). We should help students monitor, evaluate and reflect on their own performance, and provide feedback on their progress. Teachers must also model their own thinking and reasoning strategies for their students.
  8. Because students develop holistically, their learning is affected by the social, emotional and intellectual climate of the classroom. We are all intellectual, social and emotional beings and any learning activity needs to take all of these dimensions into account. The social and emotional aspects of the environment will influence the learning process. For example, in trusted settings, we may be more likely to take creative risks, whereas if we fear ridicule we are more likely to disengage from the process completely.

Note: I wrote a similar post earlier in the year, on the theoretical underpinnings of problem-based learning, which has some of the same ideas, as well as an even earlier post on the principles of authentic learning.