Martin Covington’s Talk
Lawrence Lowery’s Talk
Research Background
Teaching Practice
Further Reading On Line

Martin Covington, “Why Students Learn and (Sometimes) Don’t Learn”

In his talk, Professor Covington delved into students’ motives in their course work and the ways that these different motives can help or hinder learning. Students may be motivated to work in our classes for several main reasons: to get high grades, to prove that they are competent, to avoid making mistakes or looking foolish, to master the content of the course, or for a combination of these reasons. Grade focus, Covington argued, is particularly detrimental to student learning because students equate their grades with their abilities, and thus with their self-worth, even though grades often reflect other factors, such as their effort, energy, and time spent working in and out of class. He described two composite case studies of typical student reactions to the pressure of grades: the “excuse maker,” who responds to failure (or a lack of expected success) by procrastinating and disconnecting from course work; and the “overstriver,” who responds to the possibility of failure by taking on many tasks and projects and spreading his or her energies too thinly. Instructors need to recognize that a student perceptions of the instructor’s role and of their own role in the course may not be accurate, and we must encourage students to engage actively with material, self-monitor their learning process, and become inquisitive learners. One solution to the problem of overvaluing grades is to develop what Covington called a “problem-based” approach, in which content mastery is integrated with motivational principles that encourage a love of learning for its own sake.

Watch a video or read a summary of this talk

Lawrence Lowery, “Effective Teaching for Effective Learning”

Professor Lowery described the complex relationship between course content, the learner, and the instructor, and explained how we can leverage this relationship to increase student learning. Course content is often what we focus on as teachers, and effective teachers do need to know their disciplines thoroughly; however, this is no guarantee that they will be able to communicate their knowledge and instruct others. They also need to have expert knowledge about learning itself. In relation to the learner, effective teachers ensure that students have the required prior knowledge in order to learn new concepts; they capitalize on the power of curiosity to motivate learners; and they use different techniques to teach skills and to teach knowledge. In relation to the process of instruction, effective teachers consider the classroom environment — both the physical arrangement of the room and the affective climate. Changes in the physical configuration of the room can promote different relationships between instructor and students, such as didactic, individual, tutorial, collaborative, or Socratic. Effective instruction also focuses around questions generated by the learners, rather than questions generated by the instructor.

Watch a video or read a summary of this talk

Research Background

Social psychology & education fundamentals:

Students’ tendency to focus excessively on their grades is related to their fear of failure. Students often see the process of being graded as an evaluation not of the work they have done but of their personal worth. Good grades, to many students, imply not hard work but inherent ability, while poor grades imply inability. As a result, they try to avoid low and failing grades because they assume such grades would mean they are incompetent — not simply that they need to work harder, or differently, in order to learn.

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. Graduate student instructors, 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.

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 correcting misconceptions.

Curiosity and fear are the two primary mechanisms by which the brain is prompted to learn and remember information. In the classroom, we must capitalize on the power of curiosity to promote robust learning.

Key text:

National Research Council (U.S.). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Expanded edition. Ed. John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking. Washington, D.C: National Academies Press, 2000.

Teaching Practice

Key learning principles:

  • Creating a learning environment that leverages intrinsic motivation, rather than grades, improves the quality of students’ learning.
  • Course content can be integrated with motivational principles in order to promote robust learning.
  • 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 to teach skills and knowledge.
  • Effective teachers tap into students’ prior knowledge and address misconceptions.

Activities for the college classroom designed and implemented by members of the How Students Learn Working Group, Spring 2011. See what’s already under way at UC Berkeley to address the learning principles described in Covington’s and Lowery’s talks.

Instructor(s) Activity Course(s)
Dr. Jennifer Breckler Grade Predictions and Student Motivation in a Problem-Based Learning Course Health and Medical Sciences 200
Professor Michael Hutchings Understanding Limits Math 1A

Activities and approaches to try:

Resources for post-secondary instructors looking to implement some of these learning principles in the classroom.

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

Motivating Students from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching

Further Reading On Line

These articles explore the current state of research in social psychology and education as they relate to learning. Some articles may require access through the UC Berkeley library or proxy server.

Kyndt, Eva et al. “The Direct and Indirect Effect of Motivation for Learning on Students’ Approaches to Learning through the Perceptions of Workload and Task Complexity.” Higher Education Research and Development 30.2 (April 2011): 135–150.

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.