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Dr. G. & Friends  |  

Perennial Principles About Learning You Should Know

As educators, we are sometimes prone to “miss the forest for the trees” when preparing a course or a lesson.


That is, we often focus on the immediacy of crafting a lesson outline, selecting learning methods, creating teaching resources, rehearsing techniques for teaching, and thinking of ways to keep the lesson interesting and meaningful to our students.


All well and good, unless in the process we forget the foundational principles of effective teaching and learning.


It can be helpful to keep these 10 perennial principles about learning in mind as we prepare to teach.


1. We learn to do by doing. 

One of the facts many teachers and presenters have a hard time accepting is that the learner is the agent of learning, not the teacher.

If the teacher, trainer, or presenter is doing most of the work it’s a safe bet that he or she is the one doing most of the learning.

Passive learners don’t learn.


2. We learn to do what we do and not something else.

What we ask learners to do (the learning activity) must be congruent to the end we want to achieve.

If we want the learner to learn to ride a bike he or she must actually ride a bike.

If we want a learner to learn the Bible then he or she must study the Bible, not sit and listen to someone else who has studied the Bible.

If want the learner to learn to be a leader then he or she must actually lead.


3. Without readiness, learning is inefficient and may be harmful. 

Learning comes at its own time for each learner.

Some things cannot be learned before their time.

Until a learner is ready cognitively, emotionally, circumstantially and volitionally he or she is not able to learn, regardless of how hard we may work at it.


4. Without motivation, there can be no learning at all. 

Learners must be willing to learn as well as ready to learn.

One is a matter of capacity, the other is a matter of volition.

You can’t teach the unwilling.


5. For effective learning, student responses must be immediately reinforced.

The greater the lag time between practice and feedback the less retention there is and the greater the chance for misunderstanding or misapplication.


6. Meaningful content is better learned and longer retained than less meaningful content. 

Trivia may be entertaining, but unless learners perceive that the content of their study is relevant and applicable to their lives it will not be retained.


7. For the greatest amount of transfer learning, responses should be learned in the way they are going to be used.

In other words, form really does matter—how you do something matters, and, the context of learning matters.

Simulations have their limits, and “pretend learning” is ultimately ineffective.


8. One’s response to the learning experience will vary according to how one perceives the situation.

In order to solicit the appropriate response from the learner, we may need to change the student’s frame of reference first.


9. An individual’s responses will vary according to the learning context.

The environment for learning can enhance or inhibit the learning experience.

Determining the best context for learning is important.

The classroom is not the best place for every kind of learning.


10. One does the only thing one can do given the physical inheritance, background, capacities, and present acting forces.

As teachers, we strive to do the best we can to provide the conditions and opportunity for learning, but we must embrace the truth that, ultimately, the learner is the agent of learning.

How well and how consistently do you apply the ten principles in your teaching?

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. 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 & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.

His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).

Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans and to its teaching and learning blogs.

Dr. G. & Friends