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You are here: Home > Online Articles > Psychology’s Top 20 Principles for Enhancing Teaching and Learning



Psychology’s Top 20 Principles for Enhancing Teaching and Learning

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist


Sometimes research does not give us definitive answers about what works but, over time, principles emerge that become so axiomatic we ignore them at our peril.

A coalition of psychologists known as the Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education, supported by the American Psychological Association, sought to identify the top 20 principles that can be gleaned from the current behavioral research base. The journal Mind, Brain and Education reported these along with some of the research foundations that support them and possible implications for the classroom.

The article grouped the 20 principles under some of the most important questions we, as educators, need answers to. I will adhere to these groupings in this summary. Unfortunately, there will only be sufficient space in this article to comment briefly on each principle and we will not be able to include all of them. You can find the full list of twenty principles and the analysis of support for and implications of these principles listed under “References” below.

How do students think and learn?

Principle 1: Students’ beliefs or perceptions about intelligence and ability affect their cognitive functioning and learning.
This principle is supported by the research around growth mindset. If students believe that intelligence is malleable and that they can learn through effort, they are generally more willing to take on challenging learning goals than if they believe it is fixed by genetics. Students who believe intelligence is malleable are also more likely to be resilient in the face of lack of success on the first try. One way teachers can reinforce this kind of mindset is through the messages, both explicit and implicit, that the assessment systems they set up in their classrooms send.

Principle 2: What students already know affects their learning.
We can only interpret new information on the basis of what we currently understand. Teachers can help students build on their current understanding when it is consistent with curricular understandings and can give them experiences that create the kind of disequilibrium necessary to challenge understandings that may be naive or inconsistent with the understandings the curriculum needs them to develop.

Principle 3: Students’ cognitive development and learning is not limited by general stages of development.
We progress towards conceptual understanding based on our knowledge in a given domain, not according to general stages of development as proposed by Piaget. Teachers need to therefore be aware of and take advantage of the current domain-relevant knowledge and understanding their students possess.

Principle 4: Learning is based on context, so generalizing learning to new contexts is not spontaneous, but rather needs to be facilitated.
We therefore need to promote deep understanding by teaching conceptually and provide opportunities for students to encounter concepts in multiple contexts, while supporting them in comparing and contrasting across contexts.

Principle 5: Acquiring long-term knowledge and skill is largely dependent on practice.
Repeated, spaced opportunities to retrieve information or practice skills lead to the kind of automaticity that frees up space in working memory for more complex thinking.

Principle 6: Clear, explanatory and timely feedback to students is important for learning.
This is especially so when it is focused around a particular student goal and helps students understand and reflect on their current position in relation to that goal.

Principle 7: Students’ self-regulation assists learning and self-regulatory skills can be taught.
These teachable skills include goal-setting, planning, and monitoring progress. Students should be taught to select strategies that will help them achieve their goals, monitor the effectiveness of those strategies, and change or adapt strategies as appropriate.

What motivates students?

Principle 10: Students persist in the face of challenging tasks and process information more deeply when they adopt mastery goals rather than performance goals.
Mastery goals aim to develop competence. Those who adopt performance goals aim to demonstrate their ability to others. Those who adopt mastery goals are more likely to persist in the face of challenge and to work more strategically, using more complex cognitive strategies. The structure of our assessment systems is likely to influence the type of goals students adopt.

Principle 11: Teachers’ expectations about their students affect students’ opportunities to learn, as well as their motivation and their learning outcomes.
In general, when we hold high expectations for our students, they will live up to them. We interact differently with our students based on our expectations, often unconsciously.

Principle 12: Setting goals that are short-term (proximal), specific, and moderately challenging enhances motivation more than establishing goals that are long-term, general, and overly challenging.
The success students experience because they are able to both meet these types of goals and know that they have met them leads to higher levels of motivation.

Why are social context, interpersonal relationships, and emotional wellbeing important to student learning?

Principle 14: Interpersonal relationships and interpersonal communication are critical to both the teaching-learning process and the social-emotional development of students.
“Connectedness,” which has been defined in the school context as the “belief by students that adults (and peers) in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals” is a necessary foundation for learning to take place.

How can the classroom best be managed?

Principle 17: Effective classroom management is based on (1) setting and communicating high expectations, (2) consistently nurturing positive relationships, and (3) providing a high level of student support.
Classrooms where we create the kind of mutual interdependence and trust where each individual relies on others in order to achieve goals increase both academic and social benefits for all students.

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