How Learning Works: 7 Researched-Based Principles for Smart Teaching

By: Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett and Marie K. Norman 

Book review by Elizabeth Richardson Viti

Too often when searching for texts that support good teaching there are two distinct groups:  those books that present research on learning and those that focus on practical classroom strategies.  How Learning Works closes the divide.  On the one hand, it provides research from a variety of different perspectives and includes research from cognitive, developmental and social psychology as well as from educational research, anthropology, demographics and organizational behavior.  But on the other hand, this research underpins a set of principles that support good teaching.  Each chapter focuses on one of the principles and begins with a concrete scenario in college teaching that illustrates this principle.  A rationale for the principle follows as well as a summary of the underlying research and its implications.  Finally, there is clear advice on how to apply the principle.  The seven chapters address everything from how students' prior knowledge affects their learning to how students become self-directed learners.  


Because the importance of motivation cannot be overstated, among the most intriguing is the chapter devoted to factors that motivate students to learn.  The authors underscore two important concepts central to understanding motivation:  the subjective value of a goal and the expectation to achieve this goal, both of which interact to influence the degree of motivation.  Of course, the chapter points out, students always have multiple and competing goals (going to a study session or attending a sorority meeting, for example), and in order to choose one particular goal above all others students must believe it to have the highest value.  The chapter enumerates three types of value.  Attainment value results from the satisfaction in mastery of a particular task; intrinsic value is satisfaction in simply performing the task rather than the outcome of a task; and instrumental value represents the way in which a task successfully accomplished leads to success with other goals.  Furthermore, sources of value often work in combination.  


Equally important for motivation among students is the notion that they can achieve a particular goal, what motivational theorists refer to as expectancies.  Indeed, "for students to be motivated to engage in the behaviors that result in learning, they must believe that there is a connection between those behaviors and the outcomes they desire" (77).  However, there must be efficacy expectancies as well.  A student must believe she is capable of the desired outcome, and if she has been successful at a similar task in the past, she is likely to expect success once again.  Furthermore, if a student believes her success to be for internal reasons—her own talent—she is more likely to expect success.  The opposite is true if she believes her success is the result of external reasons such as luck, for example.  On the other hand, even a student who fails can be motivated if he feels the cause is temporary—poor preparation, for example.


Particularly noteworthy is the role of environment in motivation.  Value and expectancies are not at work in a vacuum, but instead, are influenced by the classroom atmosphere, which can be either supportive or unsupportive.  "Thus, our framework for understanding motivation suggests that if a goal is valued and expectancies for success are positive and the environment is perceived to be supportive, motivation will be the highest" (79-80).  All three are essential to motivate students.  The authors then move on to strategies that will lead to the supportive environment so necessary to motivation.  To establish value, they suggest, for example, connecting the material to students' interests or showing its relevance to their current academic lives.  The easiest strategy in this area is simply showing passion and enthusiasm for one's own discipline.  Among the strategies to help students build positive expectancies, they suggest identifying an appropriate level of challenge, providing early success opportunities and clearly articulating your expectations.


In short, this book is must reading for the teacher who is in search of evidence-based advice.

This book is available in the JCCTL library.