Teaching Evaluation, Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Teaching Implications of Learning Theories

[The best college teachers] have generally cobbled together from their own experiences working with students conceptions of human learning that are remarkably similar to some ideas that have emerged in the research and theoretical literature on cognition, motivation, and human development (from Ken Bain’s book, What the Best College Teachers Do).

Theories of learning, whether explicit or tacit, informed by study or intuition, well-considered or not, play a role in the choices instructors make concerning their teaching. The major trend  in understanding how students learn has been a movement away from the behaviorist model to a cognitive view of learning (see Svinicki (below) for an overview of learning theories).  

Implications for teaching practice of some key ideas from  learning theories

  1. Learning is a process of active construction.
  2. Learning is the interaction between what students know, the new information they encounter, and the activities they engage in as they learn. Students construct their own understanding through experience, interactions with content and others, and reflection.

    Teaching Implication
    Provide opportunities for students to connect with your content in a variety of meaningful ways by using cooperative learning, interactive lectures, engaging assignments, hands-on lab/field experiences, and other active learning strategies.

  3. Students’ prior knowledge is an important determinant of what they will learn. 
  4. Students do not come to your class as a blank slate. They use what they already know about a topic to interpret new information. When students cannot relate new material to what they already know, they tend to memorize—learning for the test—rather than developing any real understanding of the content.

    Teaching Implication
    Learn about your students’ experiences, preconceptions, or misconceptions by using pre-tests, background knowledge probes, and written or oral activities designed to reveal students’ thinking about the topic.

  5. Organizing information into a conceptual framework helps students remember and use knowledge. 
  6. Students must learn factual information, understand these facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application in order to develop competence in a new topic.

    Teaching Implication
    Support students by using concept maps, flowcharts, outlines, comparison tables, etc., to make the structure of the knowledge clear.

  7. Learning is a social phenomenon. 
  8. Students learn with greater understanding when they share ideas through conversation, debate, and negotiation. Explaining a concept to one’s peers puts knowledge to a public test where it can be examined, reshaped, and clarified.

    Teaching Implication
    Use Cooperative learning strategies, long-term group projects, class discussions, and group activities to support the social side of learning.

  9. Learning is context-specific. 
  10. It is often difficult for students to use what they learn in class in new contexts (i.e., other classes, the workplace, or their personal lives).

    Teaching Implication
    Use problem-based learning, simulations or cases, and service learning to create learning environments similar to the real world.

  11. Students’ metacognitive skills (thinking about thinking) are important to their learning.
  12. Many students utilize few learning strategies and have a limited awareness of their thinking processes.

    Teaching Implication
    Help students become more metacognitively aware by modeling your thinking as you solve a problem, develop an argument, or analyze written work in front of the class. Teach metacognitive strategies, such as setting goals, making predictions, and checking for consistency. Focus attention on metacognition by having students write in a learning journal or develop explanations of their problem-solving processes.

Resources on Learning Theories

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.) (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington DC: National Academy Press.
Donovan, M. S., Bransford, J. D., & Pelegrino, J. W. (Eds.) (1999). How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice. Washington DC: National Academy Press.
Learning Theories Knowledgebase. (2008, May). Index of Learning Theories and Models at Learning-Theories.com.
Svinicki, M. D. (1999). New directions in learning and motivations. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 80 (Winter), 5-27.