October 12th, 2011

Seven Keys to Improving Teaching and Learning


Most students hate cumulative exams, largely because of the sheer volume of course material they need to study and demonstrate proficiency in. But there’s another reason, especially in courses where there are formulas or specific tools that need to be used, and it has to do with how well they truly understand the course material.

For example, it’s one thing for physics students to know how to apply the equation F = ma when they’re studying the chapter on Newton’s Second Law. It’s quite another when they’re taking a cumulative exam and need to know when and how to apply the different formulas swirling in their heads based on the various problems presented.

Taking these students from a rather superficial knowledge structure to a richer, more meaningful knowledge structure requires an instructor who truly understands the learning process and then works to create the optimal climate for learning, says Michele DiPietro, PhD, executive director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Kennesaw State University.

During the recent online seminar 7 Learner-Centered Principles to Improve Your Teaching, DiPietro distilled more than 50 years of instructional research into seven key principles, and explained how understanding each of those principles can enhance teaching.

The seven principles are:
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.

If you’re just getting started with learner-centered teaching, DiPietro offers the following advice.

“My first suggestion is to start where the bottlenecks in the discipline are,” he said. “What topics in your course are harder for the students? Why is that? Are students lacking requisite prior knowledge? Do they need more practice of certain basic skills? Do they bring misconceptions to the table? If you don’t know, collect some data. Once you get a handle on the reasons why, start bridging those gaps with appropriate interventions. Work incrementally. Get comfortable with a few changes in your teaching first, and then expand to others, until you reach a tipping point. … Becoming more learner-centered inevitably means giving up some of the control in the classroom. This can be daunting, but it can also free up opportunities for more personal and meaningful learning for the students.”

  • I am now reading How Learning Works, the book that DiPietro co-authored with Susan Ambrose, Michael Bridges, Marsha Lovett, and Marie Norman on this very topic. It is an indispensible resource both for its succint overviews of research findings and its practicality. I look forward to applying the authors' strategies in my work with students. I highly recommend the book to those who do not have access to DiPietro's seminar.

  • Yolanda Williams

    I really appreciate the advice that places some responsibility on students to adjust. I frequently only read that faculty need to adjust. Thank you for showing that it is a two-way street.

  • Terry Peterson

    Math, by necessity, requires students to build on prior knowledge and to continually practice concepts. Ideally, this should replace misconeptions with practical skills. I have continual review as part of my math homework. Not all students do the review problems; those that do see the value of this spiral approach.