addressed the application of principles of learning to undergraduate
physical sciences and mathematics classrooms. Four key concepts
of learning were considered: 1) the role of prior knowledge, 2)
beliefs about “knowing” and “learning” science,
3) affective differences, and 4) coping with too much, too fast.
The Role of Prior Knowledge
The key to
learning is making connections: connections between what you know
and what you are being taught, what you hear in one class and what
you hear in another, what you learn in one unit and what you learn
in the next. Learning is the process of making these connections.
of a student’s prior knowledge has a tremendous influence
on how much he or she can learn in class. When designing instruction,
one should consider the following four questions:
- What breadth
of prior knowledge do your students have?
- Do they
understand where your discipline fits in with all the other disciplines
which they are taking classes?
- How much
do they know about the other related disciplines?
- What kind
of connections do they have to make between what you are teaching
and those other disciplines in order to succeed in learning your
aspect of learning is the depth of knowledge gained. Does the student
have sufficient understanding of what has been taught well enough
to make connections between ideas and across disciplines? Is the
student able to produce examples, make analogies, and apply information?
How deep is the student’s current knowledge, and what is the
depth of knowledge for which you are aiming?
prior knowledge is also important. Many students come to science
classes with misconceptions about how the world works. By thinking
about these misconceptions you can address them in your instruction.
They can even trigger students to want to learn. You could, for
example, set up an experiment, have students make a prediction,
and then ask the students to explain what happened in terms of their
is variability among learners. Students come to class with a wide
range of backgrounds. It is important for you to assess the extent
of variability and, depending on the situation, either bring everybody
up to speed in class or give those students who are not up to speed
background information and assignments that they can work on outside
Beliefs about “Knowing” and “Learning” Science
All of us have
different beliefs about what constitutes learning. Many students,
for example, believe in “the certainty of knowledge:”
there is one right answer, the instructor always has the right answer,
and the student’s job is to learn that answer. If a student
has this belief, it can have tremendous implications on his or her
learning in class.
about learning relates to how rapidly it occurs. Some students believe
that learning must be instantaneous or it will not happen at all.
They see their instructors solve problems instantly and respond
to questions immediately. If they themselves do not understand something
right way, they say “I can’t do that.”
a willingness to deal with less than perfect knowledge, the ability
to withhold judgment, and the willingness to take risks are the
attitudes about learning that students need in order to do higher
level work. To teach critical thinking we must understand the beliefs
our students harbor about our discipline, science, learning, and
themselves as learners.
refer to differences in motivation. The most common form is anxiety—test
anxiety, math anxiety, phobias about science. Other differences
include motivation—one’s willingness to learn—and
volition—one’s willingness to learn in the face of not
understanding. Students have different levels of motivation, which
impact their willingness to tackle difficult problems.
affective differences, instructors can create classroom environments
that help students overcome them. Discrepancies between a student’s
performance in class and on exams, for example, could be due to
test anxiety; by increasing the frequency of exams, an instructor
can help students grow accustomed to taking exams. To assist students
with math or science phobias, instructors can structure situations
so that students have a high probability of succeeding at challenging
4. Coping with Too Much, Too Fast
member at a university has to deal with students having to learn
“too much, too fast.” One way to help students cope
with this difficulty is through structural understanding;
that is, by providing experiences that enable them to gain understanding
of the structure of the discipline, without necessarily
knowing all the details. If students understand the structure
of the discipline, they can reproduce information without having
to remember the details. They can even speculate on details based
on what they know about the structure.
structural understanding through visualization (e.g., concept maps,
outlines, flow charts, hierarchical structures), by how we organize
the course, and by asking our students to take an active role in
organizing information with us. If students can understand the structure,
it is easier for them to learn the information, since they have
something to attach it to.
topics were addressed in the group discussion:
- What can
we do to motivate students to learn?
- Are there
different learning styles?
- What is
the difference between learning, knowing, and studying?
- Is it productive
to provide students with outlines of chapters?
- How do we
get students to stop writing down every word the instructor says?
- Does testing
help students learn?
- How do you
accurately assess what students learn through testing?
- What is
the right amount of feedback?
- What is
the effect of grades on student learning?
theory has much to offer to help faculty understand principles
of effective teaching and student learning that they can draw
on in their own teaching. Many of the behaviors exhibited by faculty
with respect to teaching and learning mirror the novice behavior
of the students in their courses. These include wanting to know
“the answers,” needing concrete examples, discomfort
with uncertainty and incomplete knowledge, and a disinclination
to go to abstract levels. Acknowledging and building on existing
behaviors, with the goal of modifying that deter learning, should
be an integral part of designing professional development programs.
grading” is strongly recommended over “norm-based
grading,” in that the former promotes attainable success
with investment, self-efficacy, a safe environment for being wrong
and taking risks, and collaborative learning.