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Nine Pedagogical Principles

The nine principles that guide our research, development, training, and assessment activities today were developed over several years. They are based on educational research on how people learn, cognitive science, pedagogical theory, and evidence-based good practices. They also reflect the experiences we gained from past projects and from training graduate students and early career teachers.

We don’t claim to have discovered these principles – they have been published many times before (see Bransford, 2000, 2005; Ambrose, 2010; Brown, 2014, Felder, 2016). What we WILL say is these principles helped us understand and solve a variety of many teaching challenges in many different settings. We think they provide a strong foundation for understanding WHY some educational practices are more or less effective for a wider range of students.

Principle 1: ! and ?, not .

We learn more from asking questions (?) and having engaging, memorable experiences (!) than from passively hearing statements (.).

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This principle is backed by decades of research. Emotionally and intellectually engaging experiences provide more opportunities for learners to ask questions and wrestle with problems, in turn fostering deeper, more meaningful learning. Learners who are not engaged usually learn less, make fewer connections with prior knowledge, forget what has been learned more quickly, and are less able to apply what they have learned.

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Principle 2: Anyone who is curious can think scientifically, and learn science.

The ideas that students must have an innate aptitude for science, or it too hard for most to master, are both myths.

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Thinking scientifically is ingrained in the operational structure of our brain, a fundamental part of who we are. Young children are intensely curious about the natural world, and studies have found children can engage in meaningful scientific inquiry as young as age 5. Sadly, by 5th grade, scientific curiosity dwindles or disappears entirely, begging the question: where does it go? Current evidence suggests most students are taught in ways that make science less interesting, harder to master, and less applicable in their own lives. Some students remain interested in STEM-related topics, but many more are discouraged or marginalized. To engage and retain more students, science teachers need to emphasize questions, positive challenges, and engaging, authentic experiences.

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Principle 3: Meaningful learning physically changes the learner’s brain.

Learning is a physiological process of remodeling existing synapses and new synapse formation by the brain.

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Deeper learning occurs more quickly when learners explore new information in different ways using multiple senses. By doing so they develop more synapses, form synapses in more areas of the brain, and form stronger connections between neurons than learners who experience new information in just one way, or in a way that does not activate multiple areas of the brain. This is the neurobiological basis for Principle 1.

Reframing learning as a physiological process can help us understand the concepts of cognitive effort, capacity, load, and reserve. Consider a lecture or similar passive didactic instructional activity. Students are likely expending considerable cognitive effort extracting and transcribing facts (cognitive load). They are near their maximum cognitive capacity, so do not have sufficient cognitive reserve left to engage in complex thinking processes that improve retention, or even to ask meaningful questions. Adding to the problem, students rarely are asked to apply their new content knowledge in meaningful ways until exam time. By then, most of their initial learning gains have been lost, and they must spend most of their cognitive effort re-acquiring basic knowledge.

Watch an excellent TEDx Talk by Dr. Lara Boyd on neuroplasticity and lifelong learning

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Principle 4: Meaningful learning occurs more often when learners use what they already know to understand what they do not.

Constructivist learning theory tells us that each learner constructs unique mental models by dynamically connecting and organizing new concepts in relation to pre-existing (also called prior) knowledge.

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Prior knowledge provides initial context or relevance, lowers the overall cognitive load, and scaffolds mental model development. When there is no prior knowledge to provide context, learners are more likely to forget, and more likely to develop misconceptions. This principle helps explain why students learn and retain more when information presented is personally relevant or meaningful. It also helps explain why most students are concrete learners, preferring to see a real-life example or scenario before working back to relevant theories and principles.

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Principle 5: There is no “typical learner.” Each learner follows a unique path to conceptual understanding.

Even if two learners use the same process to learn one concept, they can use different processes to learn a second concept. Their prior knowledge will have an enormous impact on what new connections are made.

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Links between past and new knowledge raise new questions that prompt students to make other, less obvious connections. The connections are unpredictable; students may have insightful “aha” moments, or just as easily make an inaccurate connection (a misconception). Once formed, misconceptions can be VERY hard to break. This is why low-stakes informal assessment is valuable; it can uncover misconceptions before they consolidate.

Learners will need different forms of support at different times. Some practices will work more often than others, and for more students; these are what we define as best practices. Yet if a student does not learn well in one particular way, it does not necessarily mean they cannot or are unwilling. Often it indicates a mismatch between instructor and learner mindsets.

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Principle 6: Students can develop stronger learning skills more quickly with intentional training and coaching.

Metacognition, that is, conscious attention and management of one’s own learning process and progress, improves learning outcomes. Yet very few novice learners can enact it on their own.

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Most instructors have seen novice learners overestimate their understanding of a topic, or underestimate the amount of time needed to master an idea. Novice learners rarely discover how to monitor their learning progress on their own. They need an external observer to challenge, guide, and train them.

A comparison to sports coaching is surprisingly apt here. While the biological processes differ between mental and physical performance, the underlying principle is similar. When a sports coach trains athletes, the coach makes them perform key actions repeatedly in practice (informal assessment), well in advance of an important competition (formal assessment). The coach (instructor) identifies and corrects (via feedback) improper technique (knowledge & process errors), until the individual can perform reliably at or near peak ability (mastery).

Effective teachers are neither “sage on a stage” nor “guide on the side.” They are cognitive coaches that (either intuitively or through training) know how students learn. They create a teaching and learning space that helps students identify their current weaknesses and limitations, provides the students with resources and practice opportunities that help them improve, and shows them how to monitor progress towards well-defined goals. Eventually self-assessment becomes largely automatic; this is the point where the students becomes a self-directed learner.

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Principle 7: Frequent informal assessment and feedback promotes more meaningful learning.

Frequent informal assessment is one of the most reliable ways of fostering deeper, longer-lasting learning.

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Just as any sports coach identifies and corrects improper technique by watching the athlete in action (Principle 6), informal assessment exposes misunderstandings and knowledge gaps so they can be corrected before a student is formally assessed in an exam. Instructor feedback provides students with a roadmap for improvement.

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Principle 8: Learning is reinforced when students work and learn collaboratively.

Working together requires students to use ALL of the preceding 7 practices.

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Students in high-functioning collaborative groups ask one another questions rather than simply making factual statements. This reinforces learning for the entire group. Groups tend to ask each other questions in random order, rather than in the order topics were presented. This changes the context in which students must remember concepts, and improves recall. Collaboration engages multiple senses and builds broader neural connections. Members of collaborative groups are near peers that have similar processing strategies. They are more likely to understand where their learning has stalled. Groups adapt to individual learning needs and actively coach each other.

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Principle 9: Authentic activities and assessments produce the most meaningful learning.

How we assess students and what we ask them to do sends a very clear message: “this is what we value.”

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For students to develop thinking skills that translate to real life, they need to be assessed in ways that reflect authentic situations they will experience in their actual personal or professional lives.

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For more information

Bransford, J. D., A. L. Brown, et al. (2000) How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC, National Academies Press: 374pp. Read the report online here. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309070368

Ambrose, S. A. (2010) How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA, Jossey Bass Press: 336pp.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L. and McDaniel, M. A. (2014) Make It Stick: The Science Of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA.The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: 336pp.

Felder,R.M, Brent, R. (2016) Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide. San Francisco, CA, Jossey Bass Press: 316pp.