This article is based on a talk by Lawrence Lowery, Professor Emeritus in the Graduate School of Education, for the GSI Center’s How Students Learn series in Spring 2011.

On this page:
Key Learning Principles
Research Fundamentals
Applications to Teaching
Further Reading

Also available:
Video and summary of Lawrence Lowery’s talk “Effective Teaching for Effective Learning”

Key Learning Principles

  • Content knowledge alone is not enough to make an instructor effective; an understanding of how learning works is also essential.
  • Effective teachers use curiosity to motivate students and promote memory.
  • Effective teachers use different methods for teaching skills from those they use to teach knowledge.
  • Effective teachers tap into students’ prior knowledge and help them shift away from their misconceptions.

Research Fundamentals

Content knowledge is not enough: Research indicates that highly intelligent and educated people tend to have an “expert blind spot“ which hampers them in recognizing how difficult it is for a novice to understand the fundamental principles of their area of expertise. GSIs, who are still at a level of “conscious competence,” may be able to sympathize with undergraduates’ learning challenges in the discipline more readily; faculty, who are at a level of “unconscious competence” may need to work harder to remember the conceptual challenges undergraduates face.

Mobilize student curiosity: Research shows curiosity and fright are the two primary mechanisms by which the brain is prompted to learn and remember information. Frightening our students would not be ethical, of course; it would also tend to restrict brain activity to the stress response. However, we can, and must, capitalize on the power of curiosity to promote robust learning.

Teaching skills versus teaching knowledge: In order to teach skills, instructors need to tutor and coach their students, give immediate corrections and refinements, and encourage students to practice the skills repeatedly until they are automatic. Teaching knowledge, however, is different. The best way for students to learn knowledge is for them to do “rehearsal teaching,” that is trying to explain the concepts themselves. Stabilizing knowledge in the long-term memory happens by repeating the content with some differences each time. Thus, effective teachers are flexible and present content in many different ways. If we only present content once, or we are only capable of presenting it in one way, then our students tend to simply memorize the information, rather than developing a detailed critical understanding of it. Memorizing often leads to misconceptions, so we should aim for our content to be “memorable” rather than ”memorizable.”

Tap into prior knowledge: Students usually have both prior knowledge and misconceptions that influence their ability to learn new information in any given context, including a college course. Research shows that it can be extremely difficult to address student misconceptions of basic scientific principles, writing objectives, or philosophical ideas. Instructors should devote time and resources to ascertaining the state of students’ prior knowledge, connecting new knowledge to old, and helping students identify and correct misconceptions.

Applications to Teaching

Strategies for Instruction by Lawrence Lowery, from the Lawrence Hall of Science Full Option Science System (FOSS) Newsletter, #11 (Spring 1998)

Assessing Prior Knowledge from Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence

Further Reading

Please note that some links may require Library proxy access. Please see the Library’s page Connecting from Off Campus.

Ambrose, Susan, et al. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. See Chapter 1, “How does Students’ Prior Knowledge Affect their Learning?” and Chapter 5, “How do Students Develop Mastery?”

Leach, Linda and Nick Zepke. “Engaging Students in Learning: A Review of a Conceptual Organiser.Higher Education Research and Development 30.2 (April 2011): 193–204.

McCune, Velda and Noel Entwistle. “Cultivating the Disposition to Understand in 21st Century University Education.Learning and Individual Differences 21.3 (June 2011): 303–310.

Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School (Pear Press, 2008).

National Research Council, U.S. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, 2000.