7 Learning Principles

At the beginning of each academic year, my university brings in a keynote speaker as part of their faculty development offerings.  Last year’s speaker presented some interesting research on the so-called “millennial generation,” which I found fascinating.  This year’s speaker was Dr. Michele DiPietro, a noted researcher and Executive Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Kennesaw State University. His 90 minute talk contained far too much information to summarize in this post, but I wanted to share just a few of the highlights from his informative and inspiring presentation.  The information and research he presented was drawn from a new book which he co-authored, How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart TeachingAccording to Dr. DiPietro, this book is a “synthesis of 50 years of research” into how students actually learn, with its basic principles applying across cultures.  As a nutshell description, here is a list of the 7 learning principles he discussed, quoted from his presentation handout.

  1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.
  2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.
  3. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.
  4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.
  5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning.
  6. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.
  7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.

For each principle, Dr. DiPietro provided compelling descriptions of the research behind it, along with the implications for that research.  For example, for principle No. 1 (prior knowledge can help or hinder learning), he showed how students can face learning difficulties if they have misconceptions about a certain subject, like physics, or math.  However, as musicians we know this to be true as well.  Personally, I wish no one had ever told me that the horn was a difficult instrument – imagine how differently students might approach the horn if they were told it was relatively simple to play?  Another example I’ve encountered is with multiple tonguing – some students mistakenly believe they are double tonguing, when they actually aren’t – this creates some difficulties when trying to teach them how double tonguing really works.  In some cases, though, prior knowledge can help students learn, provided that they are required to put that knowledge to use. The “moral” or implication for this particular principle was as follows. “Prior knowledge lies inert most of the time, and must be activated to be useful.” I found the rest of the presentation equally interesting, with plenty of applications for teaching music in both the classroom setting and private lessons.

Another principle which jumped out at me was No. 6, which dealt with how students respond to the classroom climate, or learning environment.  On the surface this may not seem particularly applicable to private teachers, but stop for a moment to consider the kind of environment we create in our teaching studio.  Is it an environment which encourages students to ask questions, and to help direct the course of their learning?  Or is it one in which the students are afraid to make mistakes and/or question the teacher?  What about the emotional climate – is it supportive and encouraging, or overly critical and judgmental?  These issues can really define what students take away from their private lesson experiences at the college level and earlier.

In closing I’ll share another list from Dr. DiPietro’s presentation – what we owe our students.  I think most teachers would recognize these concepts as very important to the learning process (particularly the last one), but it’s always good to review.

What we owe our students

Learning environments that

  • Value and engage what students bring to the table
  • Actively confront and challenge misconceptions
  • Stay up-to-date with what students value
  • Engage multiple goals
  • Build self-efficacy
  • Are responsive and helpful
  • Emphasize both individual skills and their integration
  • Explicitly teach for transfer
  • Provide multiple opportunities for authentic practice (clear goals coupled with targeted feedback)
  • Use the tools of the disciplines to engage and embrace complexity
  • Are explicitly inclusive in methods and content

Learning environments that not only transmit knowledge, but

  • Help students organize their knowledge in productive ways
  • Actively monitor students’ construction of knowledge

Learning environments where educators

  • Actively hunt down their expert blindspots

Learning environments that foster

  • meta cognitive awareness
  • a lifelong learning disposition
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