For the Bookshelf: How Learning Works

For the Bookshelf: How Learning Works

By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning

At a recent consultation with a university faculty, I was once again struck at how helpful it is to review “the basics” of the pedagogy of teaching and learning, and, of instruction in particular. In fact, it is not only helpful, but necessary. It remains true that too many who end up in front of a classroom never receive sufficient training in foundational teaching and learning principles and practices. For most, it often is a matter of years of trial-and-error of classroom teaching (with no little amount of frustration for both teacher and students) before becoming competent instructors. Even then, for those who do not intentionally make the study of teaching and learning part of their lifelong learning and professional development, learning “what works” in the classroom does not in and of itself result in understanding how learning happens. At worst, those teachers will be stuck with a narrow repertoire of diminishing effectiveness.

For those committed to becoming better instructors and educators, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, by Susan A. Ambrose, et al., offers a solid place to start for acquiring a deeper understanding of the dynamics of teaching and learning. The research offers a deconstruction of learning into seven distinct elements. The authors not only review the theory and research that demonstrate why these seven principles are essential to learning, but offer concrete strategies to enhance teaching related to each of the seven concepts.

The authors define learning as “a process that involves change that unfolds over time and is a result of how students interpret and respond to their experiences” (page 3). The introduction previews the seven principles of learning:

  1. Students’ prior knowledge can serve to help or hinder learning.
  2. Students’ organization of knowledge impacts how students learn and apply what they know.
  3. Motivation determines, directs, and sustains what students learn.
  4. To develop mastery, students must develop the skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply them.
  5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances learning.
  6. Level of learner development interacts with “course” climate to impact learning.
  7. To become self-directed, learners must be able to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.

The book is organized as one chapter for each principle. Using a problem-centered case approach, the chapters illustrate the application of each principle in a “What Is Going on in These Stories” segment  followed by an analyses of the case. A summary section titled “What Does the Research Tell Us” helps reinforce the application of the principles to concrete teaching-learning situations.

You can check out the Carnegie-Mellon University’s website for further reading on the concepts presented in the book. The website offers practical applications of the principles, like sections on how to design and teach a course, solve a teaching problem, assessing learners, and the effective use of technology for education.

While the focus of the book is the undergraduate context, the principles are foundational enough to be transportable to different contexts, including theological education and, to a certain extent, more informal congregational Christian education.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.

His books on Christian education include The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H).

Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans and to the Digital Flipchart blog.

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