A Thorough Look Under the Learning Hood

Many of us have read more than our fair share of books about teaching, and I would wager that the general themes are familiar. We have first person accounts, which often fall into one of two categories: the successful exhorting or the pedagogically challenged who, through some journey and development, have become successful exhorting. There are Kantian directives – one ought to do this – and confessional narratives. Moving to the third person works, one also finds guidebooks, template books, workbooks and books of rubrics. These often connect with the smaller studies that advance or debunk particular beliefs in our collective teaching lore. For example, if learning styles don’t really exist, what does that mean for your assignments? Rounding out the picture, within the past few years advances in cognition and neuroscience have broadened the spectrum. Writers like Jonathan Lehrer provide accessible accounts of the tremendous advances taking place in science.

Missing has been a work that brings together these strands, making arguments, observations and recommendations based on science. Happily, I have just read that book and I can enthusiastically suggest it. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 2010) is one of the best books I have ever come across about how learning works and what one might do to improve it in their classroom. Heady praise, indeed, but this is a very solid book.

The professionals who wrote the book: Susan A. Ambrose, Associate Provost and Director of the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence at Carnegie Mellon, Michael W. Bridges, Director of Faculty Development at UPMC St. Margaret’s Hospital, Pittsbugh, Michele DiPietro, Associate Director of the Eberly Center, Marsha C. Lovett, Associate Director of the Eberly Center, and Marie K. Norman, teaching consultant and research associate at the Eberly Center, have crafted a coherent set of principles and action items to help faculty understand, question, evaluate, assess and improve their teaching. How Learning Works

Each of the seven sections is driven by a question: How does students’ prior knowledge affect their learning? How does the way students organize knowledge affect their learning? What factors motivate students to learn? How do students develop mastery? What kinds of practice and feedback enhance learning? Why do student development and course climate matter for student learning? How do students become self-director learners? The structure for each is similar, opening with two accounts of problems from faculty members, followed by an analysis of what drives the problem and then a connection to an underlying principle of learning. Research is then summarized and a structure emerges to frame possible solutions. It is simple, straightforward and wonderfully clear.

Strengthening the connections between research and practice is a worthy goal in itself.  For me, this book goes one step further. It made me miss the classroom and that wonderful feeling when you try something new and students get it. I am very much looking forward to sharing this book with faculty and seeing how they respond.

David Potash

P.S. – It has been very well received.