How Learning Works: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: August 8th, 2014 by bobmorris

How Learning WorksHow Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching
Susan Ambrose, Michael Bridges, Michelle DiPietro, Marsha Lovell, and Marie Norman
Jozsey-Bass/A Wiley Im print (2014)

At least in higher education in the United States, how learning can work…and why, sometimes, it doesn’t

At the outset, having read and then re-read this book, I wish to share a few introductory observations. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of ways that informal as well as formal education works. Also, how learning occurs in public schools tends to differ significantly from how it occurs in public suburban and private (day or boarding) schools. Moreover, how learning occurs in colleges and universities differs significantly from how it occurs in corporate education programs, be they formal or informal.
In the Introduction, Richard Mayer suggests that this book “is the latest advancement in the continuing task of applying the science of learning to education — particularly, college teaching.” That is a key point.

Here’s another. Whenever I read a book or article about the “learning environment” in inner-city schools in the United States, I am again reminded of an incident one evening in Concord (MA) long ago, after Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a lecture on the principles of transcendentalism. He agreed to answer a few questions. And elderly farmer in bib overalls stood up and removed his cap. “Yes sir? You have a question?” Long pause. “How do you transcend an empty stomach?” The context, the culture within which education is offered usually is a major factor in terms of how receptive students are. Most of the material in this book is, as Mayer suggests, relevant to higher education.

The co-authors — Susan Ambrose, Michael Bridges, Michelle DiPietro, Marsha Lovell, and Marie Norman — introduce and focus on seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Here they are, accompanied by a comment of mine.

1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.
Comment: The same can be said of those who teach them.

2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.
Comment: Few students in school learn how to study, learn, obtain and manage information, etc.

3. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do learn.
Comment: I agree. All learning worthy of the name must be self-motivated, even when supervised.

4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when [and how] to apply what they have learned.
Comments: Decades of research by K. Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University have determined that practice must be “deep” and “deliberate,” conducted under strict supervision by an expert in the given field, to achieve peak performance. Also, what is generally referred to as the “10,000 Rule” applies. Otherwise, repetitive practice — insofar as achieving peak performance is concerned — is worthless…or worse. Why? Because it reinforces, indeed strengthens bad habits, techniques, etc.

5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning.
Comment: See my response to #4.

6. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.
Comment: I am among those who are convinced that much (most?) of the most valuable learning occurs outside of an academic (i.e. classroom) environment. That said, what happens within that environment can help to guide, inform, and nourish learning elsewhere.

7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.
Comment: Again, I agree, while adding that (a) self-directed learning presupposes self-motivated learning and (b) evaluation skills can, indeed must be mastered under expert superstition.

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of co-authors’ coverage.

o Methods to Gauge the Extent and Nature of Students’ Prior Knowledge (Pages 27-31)
o Methods to Activate Prior Knowledge (31-35)
o Methods to Help Students Recognize Inappropriate Prior Behavior (35-37)
O Methods to Correct Inaccurate Knowledge (37-38)

Note: I am reminded of the fact that, years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed that people are entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts.

o What Does Research Tell Us About Knowledge Organization? (46-58)
o Strategies That Help Students Build Positive Expectancies (85-88)
o Strategies That Address Values and Expectancies (89)
o Integration of Component Skills (103-107)
o What Does Practice Tell Us About Practice (127-130)

To repeat: Decades of research by K. Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University have determined that practice must be “deep” and “deliberate,” conducted under strict supervision by an expert in the given field, to achieve peak performance. Also, what is generally referred to as the “10,000 Rule” applies. Otherwise, repetitive practice — insofar as achieving peak performance is concerned — is worthless…or worse. Why? Because it reinforces, indeed strengthens bad habits, techniques, etc.

o The Chickering Model of Human Development, and, Intellectual Development (160-166)
o Students’ Beliefs About Intelligence and Learning (180-186)
o Beliefs About Intelligence and Learning (200-202)
o Evaluating One’s Own Strengths and Weaknesses (206-210)
o Applying the Seven Principles to Ourselves (217-224)

Obviously, no brief commentary such as this can do full justice to the scope and depth of the material that Susan Ambrose, Michael Bridges, Michelle DiPietro, Marsha Lovell, and Marie Norman provide. However, I hope those who read this review helps those who read it to decide whether or not this volume is of interest and can of value to them.

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