How Learning Works — Jane Holbrook

Paul blogged on Tuesday about a recent visitor to our campus, John Mighton, and recommended his book, “The End of Ignorance”. I’m going to continue the trend this week by suggesting another book, one that I’m finding really helpful. I became aware of it through the POD listserv (Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education) and I received it recently as an interlibrary loan. We need a copy of this on our campus; I’m finding it to be an excellent resource.

“How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teachingprovides a bridge for instructors between research on how post-secondary students learn and the practice of teaching. The authors outline seven learning principles to help guide effective teaching. These principles can help us discover why certain teaching approaches are or are not working and how, through fairly straightforward modifications to current practice, we can improve the learning experience for students. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blended learning experience for students on campus and I’m thinking about how these principles can be applied to the blended environment.

Their seven learning principles are:

  • students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning;
  • how students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know;
  • student’s motivation determines, directs and sustains what they do to learn;
  • to develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned;
  • goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning;
  • students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning;
  • to become self-directed learners, students musty learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.

For each principle there is a discussion of the research on learning behind it and suggestions of strategies that can be employed; they hit the right balance of information about the research and practical application. Although there is some discussion of educational theories and models for learning, they are presented without jargon and are clearly linked to the research and evidence that supports them. There’s no discussion of learning styles, which I actually like, because sometimes the route to improvement can seem impossible when we focus on the tremendous variation in our learners rather that on improvements that can be helpful to everyone.

When we combine face-to-face experiences with online experience in blended courses students can have challenges with managing their time and with being motivated to use the online environment to learn. Many miss the face-to-face interaction with others in the class and with their professors, particularly if the face-to-face portion of the course is significantly reduced. Reading this book is helping me gain some insight into theses challenges and what we can do to help them.

Look for Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPiertro, M., Lovett, M.C. and Norman, M.K., (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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Jane Holbrook

As Senior Instructional Developer (Blended Learning), Jane Holbrook helps to develop faculty programming that promotes the effective use of the online environment in on-campus courses. Working closely with Faculty Liaisons, CEL (Centre for Extended Learning) and ITMS (Instruction Technologies and Multimedia Services), she helps manage initiatives related to “blended learning” courses. She received her BSc and MSc from Dalhousie University but has also studied Graphic Design at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

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