How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching
In 1899, the famous American psychologist, William James published a little book called Talks to Teachers, in which he sought to explain how to apply psychology to education— that is, he sought to use what he called “ the science of the mind’ s workings” to generate practical advice for classroom teachers. At the time, the book was not much of a success, largely for two reasons: (a) there was a lack of research evidence on how learning works (that is, the science of learning), and (b) there was a lack of research- based principles concerning how to help people learn (that is, the science of instruction). Much has happened in the learning sciences in the past 100 years, particularly in the last few decades. We ﬁnally have the makings of a research- based theory of how people learn that is educationally relevant (that is, the science of learning) and a set of evidence – based principles for how to help people learn that is grounded in cognitive theory (that is, the science of instruction). Indeed, these are exciting times if you are interested in fulﬁlling William James ’ s mission of applying the science of learning to education. The book you are holding — How Learning Works: Seven Research- Based Principles for Smart Teaching— is the latest advancement in the continuing task of applying the science of learning to education— particularly, college teaching. The authors are experts in helping college teachers understand how research in the science of learning can improve their teaching. If you are interested in what research in the science of learning and instruction has to say for you as a college teacher, then this book is for you. The book is organized around seven learning principles— each a gem that is based on research evidence from the science of learning and the science of instruction. The principles concern the role of the student’s prior knowledge, motivation, and developmental level, as well as opportunities for the student to practice, receive feedback, and learn to become a self- directed learner. Each chapter focuses on one of the principles, such as “ Students ’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning. ” Each chapter begins with a concrete scenario in college teaching that exempliﬁ es the principle being highlighted in the chapter, provides a clear statement and rationale for the principle, summarizes the underlying research and its implications, and offers speciﬁc advice on how to apply the principle. Consider the following scenario: You are teaching a course in your ﬁeld. Based on years of study and work, you are an expert in your ﬁeld— but you are certainly not an expert in how to teach others about your ﬁeld. In fact, you have almost no training in how to teach. Yet a fundamental part of your job involves college teaching. You have devised a teaching style that works for you, but you wonder whether there is any way to base what you are doing on scientiﬁc principles of learning and teaching. This description ﬁts many college teachers. The book you are holding is based on the idea that you wish to consider taking an evidence- based approach to college teaching — that is, you wish to inform your instructional decisions with research evidence and research- based theory. Why should you take an evidence – based approach? You could base your instructional choices on fads, ideology, opinions, expert advice, or habit — but these approaches may not be ideal if your goal is to be an effective teacher. Admittedly, advice from experts and your own personal experience can be useful aids to you in planning instruction, but they may be incomplete. In taking an evidence- based approach, you seek to add to your knowledge base by discovering what works and how it works. In short, it is helpful to understand what the science of learning has to offer you in your role as a college teacher. Where should you look for help in improving your college teaching? Consider three common choices:
Sources that are too hard — You could try to digest research articles in the ﬁeld of learning and instruction, but you might ﬁnd them somewhat tedious and perhaps daunting. This approach is too hard because it focuses on scientiﬁc evidence without much focus on how to apply the evidence to teaching. Sources that are too soft — You could read self – help guides that offer practical advice that is not necessarily based on research evidence or research- based theory. This approach is too soft because it focuses on practical advice without supporting evidence or theory to back up the advice. Sources that are just right — You could read this book, which synthesizes empirical research evidence and research – based learning theory into practical advice for how to improve your college teaching. In short, the strength of this book is that it combines research evidence and practical advice to produce an evidence based approach to improving your college teaching. If you are interested in what the science of learning has to contribute to your college teaching, then this book is for you.
What should you look for in this book? In reading this book, I suggest that you look to make sure that it meets four basic criteria for applying the science of learning to your college teaching: Theory – grounded : the advice is grounded in a research – based theory of how people learn Evidence – based : the advice is supported by empirical research evidence showing how to help people learn Relevant : the advice has clear and practical implications for how to improve your teaching Clear: the advice is understandable, concrete, and concise
As you read about each of the seven basic learning principles in this book, you will ﬁnd advice that is grounded in learning theory, based on research evidence, relevant to college teaching, and easy to understand. The authors have extensive knowledge and experience in applying the science of learning to college teaching, and they graciously share it with you in this organized and readable book. I congratulate you for your interest in improving your teaching and commend you for taking the important step of reading this book. If you want to improve your teaching, it is useful to understand what research says about how learning works and about how to foster learning. In light of these goals, I welcome you to the feast of evidence- based advice you will ﬁ nd in this volume.
Richard E. Mayer University of California, Santa Barbar
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